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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

August 16, 2002

Air Date: August 16, 2002

FULL SHOW

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SEGMENTS

Preserving Language / Clay Scott

(stream / mp3)

In the United States, a number of Native American languages are in danger of becoming extinct. Clay Scott looks at two tribes—the Crow and the Blackfeet that are trying to keep their languages alive and pass them on to the next generation. (11:00)

Health Note/Curry Consumption / Diane Toomey

(stream / mp3)

Living on Earth’s Diane Toomey reports on a study that shows a common Indian spice might play a role in preventing Alzheimer’s disease. (01:15)

Almanac/Fragrant Firsts

(stream / mp3)

This week, we have facts about the first fragrance strip. Today’s perfumed-filled magazines owe their fashion scents to a pioneering ad that first appeared in newspapers sixty-five years ago. (01:30)

Bhopal Today

(stream / mp3)

The worst industrial accident the world has ever seen happened more than 17 years ago in Bhopal, India. Host Steve Curwood talks with Paul Watson of the Los Angeles Times about the ongoing health and environmental problems around the accident site. (05:30)

Waste Not, Want Not / Cynthia Graber

(stream / mp3)

The Canadian province of Nova Scotia has a new program for curbside pick-up of not just yard waste, but food waste as well. Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports on this province-wide compost program. (07:10)

Fear the Fake Fox

(stream / mp3)

Host Steve Curwood talks with Andrea Griffin, a researcher in Sydney, Australia. She is using stuffed foxes to train tammar wallabies to run away when they see this non-native predator. (03:00)

Business Note/Recycling Cellphones / Jennifer Chu

(stream / mp3)

Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports on a British campaign to recycle used cell phones for much-valued treasures. (01:20)

Considering the Eel

(stream / mp3)

Author Richard Schweid traveled the world in search of the mysterious and much-sought-after delicacy of the eel. Host Steve Curwood talks with Schweid about the fruits of this search, and about his new book, Consider the Eel. (08:45)

A Lesson In Sight / Dmae Roberts

(stream / mp3)

Producer Dmae Roberts profiles Portland, Oregon teenager Andrew Myer as he explains how blind people navigate urban landscapes. (07:10)

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Show Credits and Funders

This Week's Music

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve CurwoodREPORTERS: Clay Scott, Cynthia Graber, Dmae RobertsGUESTS: Paul Watson, Andrea Griffin, Richard SchweidNOTES: Diane Toomey, Jennifer Chu

[THEME MUSIC]

CURWOOD: From NPR news, this is Living On Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. It’s not only species that are endangered, some languages are too. In Montana, a Native American tribe mounts a campaign to save its language from extinction.

KIPP: Well, why would you want to speak Blackfoot? They don’t speak it in Great Falls. They don’t speak it in New York. And they don’t speak it at the universities. I think that’s really missing the point entirely. If it speaks well in my own soul, then that’s really what it’s about.

CURWOOD: Also those slithery creatures that travel the globe confounding biologists and authors alike.

MAN: So many people have spent so much time and so much money trying to understand what seems to be such a humble and basic animal. And with all that effort and energy and expenditure people still know next to nothing about the eel.

CURWOOD: That and more this week on Living on Earth right after this.

[NPR NEWSCAST]

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Preserving Language

CURWOOD: Welcome to an encore edition of Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. As many as 6,000 languages are spoken in the world. And nearly half of them are in danger of extinction. The disappearance of any language is the loss of a unique system of communication. But, as Clay Scott reports, it also means the loss of a culture and expression of human experience.

SCOTT: The Crow Indian Reservation sprawls over two and half million acres of mountains and high plains in southeastern Montana. In the center of the reservation is the town of Lodge Grass. The community school, a combination elementary and high school, sits on a hill overlooking the Little Big Horn River in the Wolf Mountains beyond. In many ways, Lodge Grass is much like any other American school. But there’s no mistaking that this is a Crow school. Along the corridors, posters and inspirational sayings remind the children that they are a unique people with a unique culture, history and language.

[SOUND OF CHILDREN IN SCHOOL]

SCOTT: Between classes, the hallway chatter is in both Crow and English. But while most teachers are more comfortable with Crow, the students speak only in English. And that mirrors a growing problem on the reservation as a whole. Plenty of people speak the language, but very few young people speak it. Mary Helen Medicine Horse, the school’s bilingual director, worries that an entire generation may be losing its language.

MEDICINE HORSE: Well, if we don’t bring it back now, today, then in the future they’re going to lose it all together, the language and the culture.

SCOTT: As recently as the 1960s, more than 80 percent of Crow children spoke the language. Today, say teachers here, that figure is closer to ten percent. And even children who are fluent, typically those raised by grandparents, are often reluctant to speak Crow outside the home. At Lodge Grass School and elsewhere on the reservation teachers are trying to reverse that trend.

[CHILDREN LEARNING CROW]

SCOTT: In this third grade class, teacher’s aide Suzie Bird In Ground is going over colors and numbers in Crow. As part of the school’s fledgling bilingual program, fluent Crow speakers spend half an hour twice a week with students of all ages. What Suzie hopes to convey to the children, she says, is that the language is more than mere words; that it cannot be separated from who they are and where they live.



Suzie Bird in Ground, teaching Crow. (Photo: Clay Scott)


BIRD IN GROUND: We want the kids, the students, and the Crow young people to learn it because it’s such a beautiful language. And it goes with everything, the land, what it is here. Crow country, it’s got names for everything, places and rivers and the constellations. And it’s all in Crow. And the students and young people need to know that.

[CHILDREN LEARNING CROW]

SCOTT: But an hour a week is not enough to create real fluency. And despite growing awareness of the problem, the number of young Crow speakers continues to plummet. There are many reasons for the decline. Increased marriage outside the tribe, for example, as well as a prevalent feeling on the part of some parents that children who concentrate on English are more likely to succeed in the outside world. But the biggest factor, say many Crows, is the encroachment of mainstream American popular culture – from TV, to music, to sports.

[HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL GAME, CROW CHEERLEADERS, RAUCOUS CROWD]

SCOTT: Tonight, over a hundred Crows have driven to the town of Laurel, Montana for a high school basketball tournament. One of the reservation teams, the Plenty Coups Warriors, is playing Fromberg High. In the Crow rooting section, emotions run high. War cries erupt at every Crow basket, steal, or blocked shot. Cheering as loudly as anyone else is Dr. Russell Stands Over Bull. At halftime, standing outside the gym, he talks with pride of the young Crows’ success on the basketball court. But even that, he says, comes at a price.

STANDS OVER BULL: I can guarantee you that it’s not cool today to speak the language amongst the youth. They look at Michael Jordan. They look at the latest hip-hop artists. And they don’t see natives on the billboards. They don’t see natives on MTV. But the culture that’s coming in is forcing a lot of the young ones to really assimilate into the mainstream society. And to assimilate, in their mind, is to let the language go.

SCOTT: Without enough young speakers, it’s extremely difficult for any language to regenerate itself. And while the Crow language is still far from reaching the point of no return, several neighboring tribes seem to have already passed it. Languages like Assiniboin, for example, or Gros Ventre, are close to extinction with no more than four or five elderly speakers each. Until recently, many people put the Blackfoot language in the same category. But in the town of Browning, Montana, along the east front of the Rocky Mountains, a revolutionary experiment is taking place.

[TEACHER AND CHILDREN IN CLASSROOM]

SCOTT: This is the Nitzipuhwahsin, or "Original Language School," a privately-funded language immersion school. Here, 36 children from kindergarten through eighth grade learn almost exclusively in the Blackfoot language. A sign in the entrance, in Blackfoot and in English, reads "Please do not speak English here." The school’s ambitious goal is to create a new generation of young people fluent in their ancestral language. One of those young people is thirteen year old Jesse Durocher, who wears his black hair in traditional braids. I asked him why he’s learning Blackfoot.

DUROCHER: Well, everybody should be unique. And if we don’t have a language, then we’re just like everybody else. They wouldn’t know that we’re Blackfeet because we didn’t speak our language no more. We just speak English. And I want to keep our language going. It’s been dying off. And I want to keep it going so it doesn’t die off like some other reservations. They don’t got their language no more. And I just want to pass it on and try to keep it going.

SCOTT: The founder of the school is Darrell Kipp, a Blackfeet who spent most of his adult life away from the reservation. After a tour in Vietnam, a Master’s degree from Harvard, and another from Goddard College, he finally got homesick, he says. But when he returned, he found the language of his childhood was dying. He decided to try to do something about it, despite lack of funding, and despite surprising resistance from many of the Blackfeet themselves who told him it was a waste of energy.



Darrell Kipp in office, Browning, Montana (Photo: Clay Scott)


KIPP: Someone’s going to say to you, well, why would you want to speak Blackfoot, or relearn it? They don’t speak it in Great Falls. They don’t speak it in New York. They don’t speak it at the universities. I think that’s really missing the point entirely. If it speak well in my own soul, then that’s really what it’s about.

SCOTT: Creating fluent young speakers where none exist is no easy task. Teachers need to be trained. Textbooks need to be developed. Then there’s the issue of how to bring a tribal language like Blackfoot into the present while respecting its past. Shirley Crow Shoe, one of two full-time teachers at the school, says she feels free to coin new words and expressions. But each new addition to the language must first be approved by tribal elders.

CROW SHOE: Look at all this technology. Computer. We have to find a word, a Blackfoot word, for computer, fax machine, microwave. All this modern technology, we’re making up words. We had to explain to the elders what a computer does. And one of the things that they said was, as you write, as you’re writing, it comes back in a rapid form, something like that.

SCOTT: How do you say that in Blackfoot?

[CROW SHOE SPEAKS IN BLACKFOOT]

SCOTT: The Nitzipuhwahsin School may be small. But it’s already had an effect far beyond the boundaries of the Blackfeet reservation. Members of dozens of tribes from around the country have come to visit the school. And many are planning their own language immersion programs. Darrel Kipp says there’s a revolution underway in how young Native Americans view themselves, their history and their language.

KIPP: They’ll simply not be carrying the excess baggage and the prejudices that we had to get rid of first. They’ll develop their own dialects. They’ll develop their owns ways and styles of speaking. They’re going to develop their own idioms. They’re going to develop all of these things in our language. And they’re going to refresh our language.

SCOTT: But not even Darrell Kipp believes the Blackfoot language will ever replace English on the reservation, or even that a majority of Blackfeet will learn to speak it again. When the children walk out the doors of the school, they enter an English-speaking environment. In fact, of more than 10,000 people on the reservation, only 25 or so fluent speakers remain. Many of them spend their afternoons at Browning Senior Center, sitting in the corner on folding chairs, telling stories in quiet voices. Robert Many Guns comes here almost every day to speak the language he fears is about to vanish.

MANY GUNS: It’s getting pretty near. It’s getting just a little ways from us. And then, it’ll be too late. Because right now, we have a handful of elders, from 60 to 65, my age. We’re the next group. But it’s just skimpy in there. Some people can understand. That’s what I’m talking about. They can understand, but they can’t speak. The next generation after him, there’s not going to be nothing.



Robert Many Guns (left) and Leroy Old Man Chief (right) at Senior Center, Blackfeet Reservation, Browning, Montana. (Photo: Clay Scott)


SCOTT: The elders are a crucial resource in the fight to retain the language. While they applaud the efforts of the teachers at the Nitzipuhwahsin School, they say something is missing. The language the students are learning to speak still sounds foreign to them. It doesn’t have the richness and depth of the language they, themselves, learned from parents, grandparents, great grandparents. The kids can say a lot of words, says Robert Many Guns, but they don’t put them together right. There’s a gap of more than 50 years between the last generation of fluent speakers and the pioneering efforts of Darrell Kipp’s school. The only way to bridge that gap before it’s too late, says Robert Many Guns, the only way for Blackfoot to be passed on, is for the children to spend time with the old people, sit quietly, and just listen.

[MANY GUNS SPEAKING BLACKFOOT]

SCOTT: For Living on Earth, I’m Clay Scott in Browning, Montana.

[MUSIC: Steve Roden, "Straight Arrow (Navajo Prayer)," IN BETWEEN NOISE (Inverted Tree Projects – 1993)]

CURWOOD: You can hear our program anytime on our website. 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 CONTINUES]

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Health Note/Curry Consumption

CURWOOD: Coming up, an entire province in Canada goes green – with garbage. Meet the composting Nova Scotians. First, this Environmental Health Note from Diane Toomey.

[THEME MUSIC]

TOOMEY: There’s evidence to suggest that anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen may help protect against Alzheimer’s disease since they reduce brain inflammation. But excessive use of these substances can cause intestinal liver and kidney damage. Now a study suggests there might be an alternative.

India has one of the lowest rates of Alzheimer’s disease. It also has one of the highest rates of curry consumption. Turmeric is an important ingredient in curry and turmeric contains curcumin, a well-known antioxidant and anti-inflammatory herb. So using mice specially bred to develop Alzheimer’s, researchers at UCLA fed one group a normal diet. Another group of mice received the same diet, but with a low dose of curcumin added. After six months, brain biopsies showed the curcumin-eating mice had less inflammation compared to mice that didn’t eat the spice.

These mice also had less oxidative damage to brain cells and produced smaller amounts of a protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers caution that while the study is promising, there’s no research to suggest that curcumin would have similar effects in humans.

That’s this week’s Health Note. I’m Diane Toomey.

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

[MUSIC]

Related link:
Journal of Neuroscience abstract

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Almanac/Fragrant Firsts

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

[MUSIC: Moog Cook Book, "Smells Like Teen Spirit"]

CURWOOD: Sixty-five years ago, the noses of American newspaper readers sniffed something more than just ink and paper. The morning news came with the distinct scent of roses. The fragrant strip had been born. A drug store used it to advertise flowers. But the perfume industry quickly grabbed the idea, to the delight of some and to the dismay of those with chemical sensitivities.

The fragrance industry has come up with all sorts of novel ideas to put scent to paper. There’s soap-based film infused with perfume oil that releases an aroma only when touched. And perfume oil can be encased in tiny bubbles that burst when applied to the skin. The next generation of paper-based scents isn’t quite as sweet. Children may be attracted to the smelly old history of the world. A series of books packed with historical whiffs, including a sweaty aroma, and a rotting crocodile mummy and Henry the VIII’s diseased toe.

But who needs paper when digital smells are on the way? They include printers that spritz scent rather than sentences. So you can e-mail a virtual bouquet to that special someone. Why pick when you can just point and click? And for this week, that’s the Living on Earth Almanac.

[MUSIC UNDER]

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Bhopal Today

CURWOOD: Eighteen years ago the deadliest chemical accident in history occurred in Bhopal, India. Over two days in December 1984, clouds of lethal gas escaped from a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal killing thousands of residents. Eventually the Indian government negotiated an out-of-court settlement and some money has been distributed to victims. But health problems and environmental contaminations still continue to plague Bhopal. Paul Watson, the South Asia bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, visited the accident site, which he describes as a rusting hulk.

WATSON: You can see the towers, similar to the one where the December 1984 leak occurred from. They’re rusting through in parts. There are old warehouses, and storage areas with broken windows, bags of what appears to be chemicals, or old pesticides that have been broken open, and are spilling out onto the floor. We didn’t have a long time to look around in there because there were guards stationed at the gate, which we had to work our way past.

CURWOOD: What’s the security like there? Are kids kept out of the area and that sort of thing? Or can anyone just walk right through it?

WATSON: That is the strange thing. We got a lot of attention as journalists on the site trying to find out what state it was in and taking photographs and such. But if you cross the road to a very large containment pond, which was used for years to dump raw chemicals in so that they could evaporate, children walk through it and play in this large pond. We counted at least a dozen, in two separate groups, wading waste-deep in this stuff. There were no security guards or police there to stop them.

CURWOOD: What are some of the chemicals that are in the area now?

WATSON: Well, this is another mystery so many years after. It was methyl isocyanide gas that leaked from the plant, which caused so many deaths. But to this day, Union Carbide insists that it is a trade secret, the formula for the chemicals which were used there. So people have done, from various different groups, analysis of the soil and the water and determined, in some studies, that there were probably about 65 different chemicals that were involved in the gas leak itself.

CURWOOD: What’s the health situation for people around Bhopal? I know some activist groups contend that ten or fifteen people still die every month as a result of the accident and ongoing contamination.

WATSON: There were more than a million people who made claims that their health had been affected by it. Tribunals, which were set up by the Indian government to hear these claims, rejected more than half of those. The only scientific studies into the longer-term effects, such as birth defects, cancers and other suspected illnesses, were being carried out by a state-run Indian medical institution. And about six years ago, unceremoniously, the plug was pulled on that research. And they were looking into various things, including the suspicion of birth defects and carcinogenic effects. But also things such as the suspicion that cases of depression could be connected to the inhalation of this gas, as well as actual long-term brain damage.

CURWOOD: Why was that government research into the after-effects of the accident halted, Paul?

WATSON: No formal reason was given for it. The suggestion that’s made in court documents is that the research was going nowhere; that there wasn’t much substance to what they were finding. And therefore it wasn’t necessary to continue it. In different studies, certainly Indian experts felt they were on to something. But they weren’t allowed to continue to either conclude that it was a false fear or that it was a real fear.

CURWOOD: Paul, there was a settlement that the Indian government brokered with Union Carbide for victims of the accident back in 1989. Whatever happened to that money?

WATSON: Well, the total sum was $470 million, which was a large sum of money in those days. And in some respects still is, certainly for the people who were the main victims of this leak. If they were able to get larger than the $580 average settlements that they received, or around $1300 in the case of deaths, they would be much better off than they are. There is a mystery surrounding that $470 million. And most estimates are that more than half of it is still in the government central bank vault. That is more than half of what the $470 million would have risen to with interest. The problem is no one really knows how much of it’s left because the government has not done a full accounting, publicly, of what funds are available still. People who continue to appeal to the Supreme Court and are still fighting in the United States for more compensation insist that they’re giving out the bare minimum to these victims. And in the end, the rest of it is just disappearing.

CURWOOD: Paul Watson is the South Asia bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times. He joined us from New Delhi. Thanks for your time, Paul.

WATSON: Thank you.

[MUSIC]

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Waste Not, Want Not

CURWOOD: Nearly a third of all household garbage is yard and food waste. And all that organic matter could be conveniently and cheaply recycled by nature in a compost heap. That’s what residents of Nova Scotia found out when they wanted to cut down on their garbage. They put together a program to pick up and compost organic waste from nearly every home in the Canadian province. Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports.

GRABER: It’s morning at the Caribou Lodge Bed and Breakfast in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The sun peers in through the huge glass windows of the dining room. Owner Anna Ellis tells me to scrape my kiwi peels, tea bag and leftover cranberry scone into the small green bin sitting next to the garbage can.

ELLIS: Basically, anything that’s organic goes into the kitchen compost bin ‘till it’s filled. And then it’s taken outdoors to the larger compost bin, which goes out to the street.

GRABER: Every two weeks, Ellis tells me, a trash hauler comes by and takes the contents to a regional composting center. She says this new system took some getting used to.

ELLIS: It was a nuisance to me in the beginning. So, over time, you know, I succumbed to it all (laughs). And now I wonder why I found it a nuisance because it’s the right thing to do. It’s good for the environment. It’s good for the household. It just is good.

GRABER: More than two years ago the government of Nova Scotia took an unusual step to deal with their growing trash problems. They asked residents to separate out yard waste and food waste. The goal is to cut down on the waste stream and keep organics out of the landfill. There’s no oxygen in landfills. So when bacteria eat away at organic matter, the result is methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Also, as food decomposes, it mixes in with other landfill trash and creates a toxic soup called leachate that can run off and pollute nearby soil and water. Brian Smith, director of Solid Waste Resources in Halifax, says the old, crowded city landfill was beset with other problems, too.

SMITH: The history of the landfill had been very dark. It had been plagued by seagulls, flocks of seagulls, by odor problems, by problems with the community generally. And it was very difficult to go back to the communities around Halifax and say we’d like you to take another landfill of that kind.

GRABER: So the province began a new recycling and composting program and it made it the law. It’s now illegal to toss that apple core or the ends of your sandwich into a Nova Scotia trash can. Instead, here in Halifax, it all goes into a green bin that gets picked up curbside and taken to one of the city’s two composting facilities.

[Sound of machinery]

GRABER: This huge warehouse is the drop-off point for incoming waste.

WORT: We’re now on the 10th floor where the whole process starts.

GRABER: Andrew Wort manages the New Era Farms composting facility. He’s standing in front of a towering, wet, slightly rank pile of organic garbage. Wort says it contains a mix of food and yard waste, cereal and detergent boxes, food-stained paper – just about anything that will decompose.

WORT: Things like half grapefruits, a lot of food waste, some leaf and yard waste, Christmas trees, the orange peels. Over here, there’s a lot of animal waste, green apples.

GRABER: Wort points to a conveyor belt that runs above our heads. The garbage mix goes up this belt to the other side of the warehouse to workers at a sorting line.

WORT: We are pulling the contaminants off the best we can, and then the material is shredded and we’re ready to put it into the containers.

GRABER: While composting is theoretically easy, contamination makes it more difficult on an industrial scale. Barry Freisin is the province’s solid waste resource manager. He reaches into the pile and pulls out one example.

FREISIN: What I’m holding here is an automatic dishwasher detergent box. It has a metal spout on it which is sharp, dangerous if you want to buy compost. Hopefully, they can pick it out on the metal sorting line.

GRABER: Workers pick out the occasional tin can or once in awhile even a bowling ball. Then everything gets shredded up. It’ll spend one to two weeks in large, warm, humid containers where the composting process gets a jumpstart. Then the piles are moved to another building where bacteria work on them for another eight to ten weeks.

WORT: Let’s go to the back end now and take a look at the final thing.

GRABER: Wort leads me through the door of another huge warehouse. He walks over to a pile and picks up a handful of rich, brown material that smells like damp earth.

WORT: It’s got paper in it, it’s got pieces of wood, but generally, it’s basically leaf-like material. This will spend another three or four months before it actually gets used in a soil blending. So it’ll break down substantially more than what it is right now.

GRABER: In the first two years, this facility processed 40,000 tons of compost. Wort says the market for the finished product is primarily golf courses and landscapers. Nova Scotia hopes its investment in a new landfill and recycling facilities will, in the long run, save the province money, too. The old landfill still costs three million dollars a year just to treat toxic leachate and greenhouse gases.

But the program has its challenges. It’s been tough to get apartment buildings on board, and there have been problems with people throwing all kinds of junk into their compost bins. The province says the answer is public education, like the table set up here at a festival in downtown Halifax.

WOMAN: They break when you drop them, what’s that? But, so we’ve got glass, metal, plastic, cigarettes. Never go in the green bin. Excellent.

GRABER: From patrons of the neighborhood tavern to the cabby who drove me home one night, many people here are surprisingly knowledgeable about the new recycling and composting program, even down to the nuances of how to deal with those annoying fruit flies. Back at the bed and breakfast, my host Anna Ellis tells me how she deals with the teeny pests. One: empty the small kitchen compost bin frequently, she says, especially in the summer. And two:

ELLIS: If you roll anything organic, food scraps and the like, in newspaper first, and then put it into the compost bin, this helps to cut down, as well.



(Photo: Nova Scotia Department of the Environment)


GRABER: Sure, it takes some extra effort. But for most Nova Scotians, composting is becoming just another daily routine. They know what happens to their trash and they know what they’re doing makes a difference. And now, when they go to other cities or other countries, many folks here tell me they’re uncomfortable throwing an apple core into the garbage can. For Living on Earth, I’m Cynthia Graber in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

[MUSIC]

CURWOOD: You’re comments on our program are always welcome. Call our listener line anytime at 800-218-8899. Our email address is letters@loe.org. And visit our webpage at www.loe.org. That’s www.loe.org. CDs, tapes and transcripts are $15. You’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

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Fear the Fake Fox

CURWOOD: Animals born in captivity have a mixed record at making it in the wild. One of the biggest problems can be getting them to understand the danger of predators. That’s the case with tammar wallabies. These small marsupials are on the brink of extinction on mainland Australia, because they don’t sense danger when they encounter predatory, non-native cats and foxes. Andrea Griffin is a researcher in psychology at Macquarie University in Sydney. She’s training captive born wallabies to fear their predators, in hopes they might survive once released into the wild. Ms. Griffin, why don’t tammar wallabies naturally fear foxes and cats? I’d think that would be instinctual.

GRIFFIN: Foxes and cats have only recently come to Australia. Foxes were only brought over by the European settlers about 130 years ago. So they are, in fact, a novel predator for tammar wallabies.



A tammar wallaby at the Macquarie University Marsupial Park.(Photo supplied by Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia)


CURWOOD: You have now enrolled these wallabies, or some of them, in a predator aversion school. What’s your technique? What do you do to teach them about predators?

GRIFFIN: Well, I use a stuffed fox and I teach them to associate a fox with something they’re naturally afraid of, and that’s being caught by humans with nets. So in practice, I use the stuffed fox as the signal, so they become afraid of it, because it signals that they’re going to be caught by a human, which they absolutely hate.

CURWOOD: Tell me a bit about the fox; what exactly does it look like?

GRIFFIN: It looks like an absolutely real fox – it is a real fox and people actually get quite a fright when they stumble across it by mistake. If I put it behind a door and somebody walks into the lab all of a sudden they will get quite a fright. It’s very realistic. For example, my dog gets very freaked out when she sees it.

CURWOOD: Tell me a bit about the range of response of the students of this. What do the best students do? What do the good students do? What do the C- students do?

GRIFFIN: The very good wallabies run away and continue running and continue alarm thumping. That’s the very highest response that I see. They’re inside an enclosure, so they’re very motivated to try to get out of that enclosure. The B- students, they might hop away as far as they can, then they’ll stop and they’ll keep watching that predator.

CURWOOD: And the ones that fail?

GRIFFIN: I don’t have any that fail. They all learn.

CURWOOD: All good students! Now, animals can teach each other, sometimes, about dangers. What experience have you had about this among the wallabies?

GRIFFIN: I do have evidence that the wallabies can learn from watching another wallaby that has been previously trained, because we’re not going to be able to train every single wallaby that goes out into the wild and they have to be able to learn from each other once they’re out there. For example, experienced mothers would have to teach their young to be fearful of foxes, so that these responses that we’ve trained in captivity are maintained in the population. But those experiments are still underway.



Andrea Griffin with the model fox she used to train tammar wallabies.(Photo supplied by Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia)


CURWOOD: Andrea Griffin is a researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. Thanks for taking this time with us today.

GRIFFIN: Thank you.

[MUSIC]

Related link:
Article from Macquarie University

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Business Note/Recycling Cellphones

CURWOOD: Just ahead – considering the eel is next. First, this Environmental Business Note with Jennifer Chu.

[THEME MUSIC]

CHU: Inside very old cell phones is a treasure waiting to be mined. And a British telecommunications firm says it will gladly accept your old mobile. You can mail your unwanted phone to XS Tronix in London where it’ll be stripped for precious metals like gold, silver and palladium. The company says the estimated 90 million unwanted phones in the UK alone contain about $2 million in silver, $15 million in palladium, and $26 million in gold.

Older and bulkier phones tend to house more metals than newer models. After the precious metals are extracted, they’ll be smelted down, refined, and resold on the commodities market to jewelry makers and semi-conductor manufacturers. The company also plans to recycle the plastic in the phones. Recovering these cell phones could keep about 5,000 tons of electronic waste out of the landfills in the UK.

And there’s an incentive to recycle. People who turn in their old phones can get free movie tickets, free minutes on their monthly bill, or a donation to their favorite charity. That’s this week’s Business Note. I’m Jennifer Chu.

[MUSIC UNDER]

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

[MUSIC]

Related link:
XS Tronix website

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Considering the Eel

CURWOOD: It’s Living On Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Some people travel the world for adventure, for fine food, or just the thrill of it. Author Richard Schweid found all three when he hit the road in pursuit of something most people would rather avoid: the eel. From the Sargasso Sea to the rivers of Spain and beyond, Mr. Schweid follows the slithery fish and writes about his experiences in his new book, "Consider the Eel." He says his discoveries about this humblest of creatures have inspired a sense of wonder and mystery and also made for some really great eating along the way. Richard Schweid, welcome to Living on Earth.

SCHWEID: Hi Steve.

CURWOOD: Why did you yourself decide to consider the eel? What was the experience that, pardon me, hooked you?

SCHWEID: It trapped me, actually. I was out with a guy in sort of an inland, marshy lake down below Valencia, and the guy trapped some eels as part of the way he made his living. And he trapped one the morning I was out with him in his boat. And he took us back to a cafe in town and went in the kitchen and cleaned the eel – which was nice of him to do – and cooked it for us. And when he served it to us he said, you know, it’s an amazing thing. An eel is just an incredible animal. And we said, well, it tastes pretty good. What else is so amazing about it?

And he told us the story of how all eels come from the Sargasso Sea, that very deep sea in the Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda and the Azores, and he told us the story of how they all came thousands of miles and then came into the rivers of Europe. And I thought to myself, this is one of the most gullible people I’ve ever met in my life. This is the most ridiculous story I’ve ever heard, and we went on about our business. And later I found that he had it exactly right.

CURWOOD: What’s the biggest mystery you found about eels?

SCHWEID: Well, the biggest mystery is, without a doubt, how does an eel maintain such an odd lifestyle? All those eels are born in the Sargasso Sea and there the currents carry them either to the rivers of North America or the rivers of Europe. And then some 15, 20, 25 years later they turn around at some signal that nobody knows what it is, and go back to the sea, and they stop eating once they hit saltwater. They go down the river and they jettison their entire digestive apparatus, and their eyes open up so that they can see down in the depths of the sea. And they go through all these changes and then they swim down to the Sargasso, where, theoretically, they mate and they die.

CURWOOD: We don’t know how they replicate themselves?

SCHWEID: The scientific theory that eels reproduce at depths in the Sargasso Sea is – the only evidence we have for that is that the larvae that have been found on the surface of the Sargasso are so small, so infinitesimally small – five millimeters – that they had to have been born close by. And of course we have observed eels coming back down the river and going into the sea. But what happens to them once they get into the sea, no one’s ever seen and no one’s ever been able to track them. A considerable amount of money has been spent with sophisticated sonar-equipped ships trying to track adult eels as they head out into the open Atlantic and to date no one’s ever been able to even get close. They lose them about as soon as they get them.

CURWOOD: By the way, the eels we’re talking about are fresh water eels.

SCHWEID: These are fresh water eels.

CURWOOD: These aren’t the big guys, the morays and the electric fellows that you can find deep in the ocean?

SCHWEID: No, these are the eels that you might – many a fisherman living fairly close to the east coast might think that they’d gotten a good fish when they get a pull on their line and they reel it in. And much to their horror, it’s an eel. This is the kind of eel we’re talking about. It might live in a lake or a pond or a river near you.

CURWOOD: Now, I’m wondering. You’ve been studying the lifecycle of eels for quite awhile. What observations or comparisons might you make between eels and us humans?

SCHWEID: I’d say eels have got all the good. We had all the bad. It’s much better to be an eel, Steve.

CURWOOD: Really?

SCHWEID: I think so because, look at it this way. We have a pretty monotonous life. We keep the same form. Although we grow we keep, more or less, the same form for our whole lives, whereas an eel begins as a larva, a tiny little leaf out in the middle of the great Atlantic Ocean. So it finds fresh water and its body transforms into a thin, transparent ribbon which then grows over the course of years into what we know as an eel. So anyhow, that’s my general take on it. I think humans have got kind of a raw deal, really. I think the eel got all the best of the evolutionary process.

CURWOOD: One of the things that you key into your book is that the eel population is declining. What are the threats to eels and why are they particularly vulnerable?

SCHWEID: Changes in oceanographic temperature may be having some effect on the number of eels that hatch out and the number of viable eels that manage to make their way across the ocean to fresh water. And then again, there are some places in Europe, for instance, where there is a certain market for the elvers – for the very tiny eels that are just coming from the saltwater into the fresh water – and they can be sold to Japan directly or they can be sold to China because the Chinese are investing heavily in raising eels to marketable size to sell to the Japanese. So that there are years in which when the Japanese eel recruitment is down the Chinese buy their eels from the Europeans, their little babies. And there are years in which tiny eels have been worth more per kilo, say, than heroin.

CURWOOD: Now, all this to consider the eel. If you ask most Americans to eat eels, well, they probably wouldn’t, right? But what about the eel market in other parts of the world? Who really likes these creatures?

SCHWEID: Almost everybody else likes them. Everywhere that they appear, they’re eaten with great avidity. It’s only in the United States where eel is not consumed so much and that was one of the reasons that I really wanted to consider the eel myself. And many, many people in the United States ate eel right up until the mid-nineteenth century. And after the Civil War it began to decline until the consumption of eel has essentially evaporated and disappeared.

CURWOOD: You write that in Spain, chefs there prepare baby eels called elvers, or I guess in Spain the word is angulas, in a special way. Can you read a little from this, please?

SCHWEID: Sure. Glad to. "No one is certain just who was the first to stop throwing the angulas to the pigs and begin tossing them in a frying pan instead. Angulas a la Vizcaina are elvers flash-fried in cold-pressed, extra virgin olive oil and served in an earthenware bowl with minced garlic and a pepper with a mild sting called a guindilla. They’re served while sizzling hot and are eaten with a wooden fork, because a metal utensil might burn the diner’s lips. On the menus of San Sebastian’s restaurants, the price of one can reach $70 or $80 a serving during the season, each serving a quarter of a pound. They’re quite tasty, like a slightly grainy pasta with a tiny crunch in the backbone and a faint aftertaste of fish and garlic, along with the guindilla’s light bite."

CURWOOD: Seventy, eighty bucks a serving!

SCHWEID: Well, I have to say that I tasted them all in the line of duty, you know. I tasted them and the chef insisted that I have it and that he wasn’t going to charge me for it.

CURWOOD: What’s your favorite way to prepare eel?

SCHWEID: Well, I tend to go along with the Dutch and German. Smoked eel, to me, is just delicious. I like eel sushi. And I like all kinds of eel, really. I’ve never eaten eel that I didn’t like at all. My least favorite was probably jellied eel, which is something they still eat in great quantity in London, which is simply chunks of eel in gelatin, served usually in a Styrofoam paper cup like you’d get a cup of coffee to go in, and then you put either regular vinegar or hot vinegar on top of that. The English love it, particularly in London’s East End. It used to be one of the favorite foods. But I didn’t find it particularly tasty.

CURWOOD: Richard, tell me, what surprised you most doing the research about eels for this book?

SCHWEID: Well, I think the biggest surprise to me was the fact that so many people have spent so much time and so much money trying to understand, what seems to be, such a humble and basic animal. And with all of that effort and energy and expenditure, people still know next to nothing about the eel.

CURWOOD: Richard Schweid is a journalist and author of "Consider the Eel." He spoke to us today from Barcelona, where he’s senior editor of "Barcelona Metropolitan," a magazine. Richard, thanks so much for taking this time with me today.

SCHWEID: Thanks very much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.

[MUSIC]

Related link:
Buy Richard Schweid’s "Consider the Eel" from Amazon.com

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A Lesson In Sight

CURWOOD: Whether you’re a native or a visitor, getting around a major city can often be a hassle. But for the visually impaired, getting around town can be an obstacle course. Producer Dmae Roberts wanted to navigate the streets of Portland, Oregon with her eyes closed. She got this lesson in sight from 19-year-old Andrew Meyer.

ROBERTS: I’ve worn glasses since I was 10 years old. Each year, I have to get a stronger prescription. As others who are nearsighted probably do, I wonder what it would be like to someday lose my sight.

[SOUND OF WALKING IN HOUSE]

ROBERTS: Sometimes I close my eyes and try walking through my house. I wonder how it would be to walk around the neighborhood, to get to the grocery store, to do what I consider simple things.

MEYER: We can hear the difference when we walk through a door, when there’s a hallway off to your left, when it’s just a closed wall. The sound changes.

ROBERTS: I met Andrew Meyer when he was in Portland for a summer program by the Oregon Commission for the Blind. Andrew has been blind since birth. He was abandoned in an alleyway in the Philippines when he was a baby and was adopted by an American couple with four children.





MEYER: I’ve always been someone to use sights as sort of a generic term. Ever since I was little, my foster family tells the story of when I was sitting in the living room, or after dinner, I’d go, ‘let’s go watch TV.’ And they’d all look at me like, ‘you’re not going to go watch TV. You can’t see.’ And ever since I was little I always felt that that was correct to use those terms.

ROBERTS: Early on, Andrew learned that he, too, could see, just not with his eyes. He learned to not only walk with a cane, but to run in track meets. I ask Andrew to explain how he finds his way around. He immediately starts physically mapping out the patio at the dormitory where we’re standing.

MEYER: What I do is basically find one place that I know exactly where I am. And I know exactly where I am right here. If worse comes to worse, I come back here to the door. That’s where I’m going to go to. And then, we’d trail one wall. We just go around the room. So, I’m just going to walk around the patio really quickly, turning you left. See, there’s a chair there. A little bit farther, there’s a drop-off. Okay, so that’s the edge of the patio. So, I learn how wide this patio is. But how long is it? So I’m just going to turn right and walk the length of the patio. And I find a few things, like a pole. And we reach the end of the patio.

ROBERTS: Sound and touch are important to help him see, as Andrew moves through his environment.

MEYER: We always pay attention to what’s underneath our feet. So for example, right now, we’re on cement. Now I’m on grass. Room carpet versus, say, like indoor-outdoor carpeting that’s not very thick carpeting, or brick. Go from concrete to brick. So we learn how to pick that up.

ROBERTS: How about trees? How do you deal with them?

MEYER: You can tell when you come up to them. Or if they happen to hit in your face, you learn later, you might want to duck when you get to that point.

ROBERTS: I look around and see the trees with branches close enough to hit my face. It would be hard to get around even a backyard, let alone a forest or woods. But Andrew tells me that it doesn’t matter if it’s a forest path or a city street. Any terrain that isn’t predictable is difficult.

MEYER: If you led me in like a field of grass, and tell me, ‘find the nearest sidewalk,’ good luck. If there’s a lot of one thing around us, it’s really hard, and if nothing is straight lines. Blind people like straight lines. They’re very predictable.

ROBERTS: City streets have a lot of straight lines. But there’s a lot of traffic to avoid: cars, trucks, bikes, even skateboards. I want to hear how a trip to the store would sound to someone without sight. So I give Andrew a mini-disc and a mic. And he records his trip to the grocery store with two teen friends, Tiane and Sumner, who are also blind.

MEYER: Okay, we’re on. Okay, Tiane.

TIANE: Yes. I’m right here.

[SOUND OF SHOPPING CART]

MEYER: Okay. We’re walking to Safeway. And that rattling in the background which is Tiane’s little cart so she can carry all of her food that we all buy in the cart. So we don’t have to carry it by hand. Because it’s really annoying to walk from Safeway carrying it by hand. And Sumner’s to my right. Say ‘hi’ Sumner.

SUMNER: Hello.

MEYER: Yeah, see, that’s Sumner. We’ve got our traffic to our right. As a blind person, we’d sometimes key off the traffic. Not right now because we’re walking on the sidewalk. So the traffic is off to our right. So at the moment, I’m not keying off of it. I don’t really care it’s there, until we get to a street. And then I will care if it’s there. Because that’s how we’ll know when to go. Of course, we have really easy crossings here. And we’re going to go ahead and cross the street that was off to – well, no, I guess not. Yes we are. We’re going to cross the street that was right off to our right which is Woodstock.

TIANE: And people are stopping.

MEYER: And people are stopping. And so we’re going. And now we’re on the other side of the street. So the sound is coming from the other side of the mic.

TIANE: People on bikes and skateboards.

MEYER: Yeah, there are a bunch of people just riding past us. I barely notice. And I just hit a branch.

TIANE: Sorry, Andrew.

MEYER: And, I’m walking with Tiane.

TIANE: Ow!

MEYER: And ow! I guess she just walked into something, too. She found a branch, well, too. And now we’re going to go ahead and cross Woodstock because we’ve been on the other side where Safeway is.

TIANE: And it’s time to cross.

MEYER: And, we’re going to walk into Safeway. The way this works is we’re going to go up to the counter. And we’re going to get a what everybody?

TIANE: Personal shopper.

MEYER: We’re going to get a personal shopper. And we’re going to tell them what we want. And they drag us around the store. So we don’t have to know the store, because every single Safeway is different and they change all the time, as you guys probably know.

ROBERTS: After walking nearly half an hour to get to the store, Andrew and his friends go inside. An employee, who helps the visually impaired to shop greets them.

SAFEWAY EMPLOYEE: Hello.

MEYER, TIANE, SUMNER: Hi.

SAFEWAY EMPLOYEE: Do we need a basket?

TIANE: Yes, we do.

MEYER: How about – just a basket, I think, is going…

SAFEWAY EMPLOYEE: That’s what I meant. Yeah, like a hand basket?

MEYER: Or a cart. Let’s grab a cart.

TIANE: Yeah.

SAFEWAY EMPLOYEE: Well you have a lot of shopping to do.

MEYER: Well, to be on the safe side.

TIANE: Yeah.

MEYER: I don’t know. I might find some items I suddenly take a liking to, while we’re on the way.

ROBERTS: As they go about their shopping, Andrew turns off the tape deck. Later, he told me how disorienting it was to record with headphones while trying to listen for street sounds. I can’t imagine crossing the street without my sight. And I marvel at his ability to navigate the world around him.

Andrew’s walk to the store inspires me to step outside to my own backyard and try moving around with my eyes closed. I cross my own patio and walk on the soft grass, then try to cross to the plum tree in the back. It feels like a long walk. But eventually, I – oh, I found it. For Living on Earth, this is Dmae Roberts in Portland, Oregon.

[MUSIC]

CURWOOD: Our profile of Andrew Meyer was made possible with a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It’s part of the Hearing Voice Series.

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And for this week, that’s Living On Earth. Next week a biologist merges science and motherhood.

STEINGRABER: My scientist brain at some point turns off and I no longer beat the drum, as scientists do, asking for more research, saying ‘Oh, this is very provocative but we need more research.’ Suddenly, my mother brain comes in here and says ‘You know what? I don’t need any more proof or evidence that this is harmful to children.’

CURWOOD: Having Faith, a scientist’s journey through her own pregnancy. Next time on Living on Earth.

[SOUND OF SEALS]

CURWOOD: Before we go, let’s visit with some Weddell seals in Antarctica in mating season through six feet of ice. These are their territorial calls recorded by Douglas Quinn.

[SOUND OF SEALS]

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 Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Maggie Villiger and Al Avery along with Julie O’Neill, Peter Shaw, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson and Jessica Penney. Special thanks to Ernie Silver. Our interns are Jamie McEvoy, Max Morange and Emma Uwodukunda. 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. 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.

ANNOUNCER 1: Funding for Living on Earth comes from The World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include The Educational Foundation of America, for reporting on energy and climate change, The Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, supporting efforts to better understand environmental change.

ANNOUNCER 2: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

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