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

February 27, 2004

Air Date: February 27, 2004



Avian Madness

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Part One: Spring is the time of year when amateur birders emerge from their winter dens, binoculars in hand, to track their avian quarry. But for the competitive birder, all four seasons are fair game for finding rare bird species, especially if that birder is doing a Big Year. Host Steve Curwood talks with author Mark Obmascik about the most competitive year-round birding contest in North America, and his new book, "The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession."
Part Two: We continue our conversation about The North American Big Year, and talk with competitive birder Greg Miller, who made it to the top ranks of the 1998 Big Year, but not without a little luck, and a lot of credit card debt. (29:00)

Emerging Science Note/Microbial Fuel Cells / Cynthia Graber

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Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports that bacteria can clean waste water and generate electricity for a fuel cell - at the same time. (01:20)

GM No! Mendocino? / David Johns

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Organic wine growers in Mendocino County on the California coast are backing a Super Tuesday initiative to ban the cultivation of any genetically engineered plants in the county. They say a no-GMO label could be good for marketing. David Johns reports. (05:40)

Green Burials / Mitzi Rapkin

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Dying is big business in the United States. Some twenty billion dollars are spent annually on funerals and cemeteries. The past few years have seen an evolution in the funeral industry as individuals try to find creative ways to memorialize their loved ones. As Mitzi Rapkin reports from South Carolina, one man is offering burial services in an outdoor preserve that not only save money, but are ecologically sound, as well. (09:00)

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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: Mark Obmascik, Greg MillerREPORTERS: Ingrid LobetNOTES: Cynthia Graber


CURWOOD: From NPR - this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. Of the millions of birdwatchers in North America, only a select few go for the grand prize of birding: spotting the most species of birds in a single year. It’s mostly a competition for the rich, but one winner is famous for living on the edge as he hitched across America chasing his fowl obsession.

OBMASCIK: Most amazingly, he actually lived often on a can of cold Campbell’s soup, and he would pour Little Friskies Braised Liver cat food into it and chow down [laughter]. Just to see birds.

CURWOOD: These extreme birders may sound a little cuckoo, but their motives and their methods are most honorable.

MILLER: In birding, credibility is like virginity, you can only lose it once.

CURWOOD: The biggest feather in the birders’ cap - this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.


ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth Comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

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Avian Madness

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Step inside any sporting goods store, and chances are binoculars and birding guides aren’t the first items you’ll see on display. But as many in the birding circles would say, their hobby and, in some cases, their obsession, deserves a trophy spot in the sporting world. Especially, if you’re a birder who’s been through a Big Year.

Mark Obmascik is author of “The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession.” His book chronicles the race among three men to win the most competitive contest within the birding world: The North American Big Year. Mark, welcome!

Mark Obmascik, author of “The Big Year.”



CURWOOD: Now, I understand that the results of the Big Year are published every year in the American Birding Association’s magazine and, as you write, it generates more gossip than an eighth grade locker room. What exactly is the Big Year?

OBMASCIK: Well, the Big Year is kind of the Super Bowl of birding – how many birds can you see north of the Mexican border in a year? And you can use pretty much any means to go see them. People go out by car, by truck, by helicopter, in some cases, mountain bike. And the idea is just to chase a rumor of a rare species anywhere on the continent.

CURWOOD: A rumor of a rare species?

OBMASCIK: With the information revolution, what’s happened is there are places in North America where, if a rare bird lands, it will be on the Internet within minutes. And there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of people in the country who will chase it, just for a chance to add it to their life list.

CURWOOD: Now, before we get to the story of the three men that you follow throughout the 1998 Big Year, I want to talk about some other men who are among, I guess, probably the most elite, and certainly the most extreme of birders. I’m thinking of John James Audubon, Roger Tory Peterson, and Ken Kauffman. Tell me, how did Audubon and Roger Tory Peterson set the bar for the Big Year?

OBMASCIK: Well, there’s a great tradition of people being consumed by their obsession for birds. John James Audubon was a man who – a Frenchman who came to America to duck Napoleon’s draft. He got here and fell in love with these beautiful feathered creatures. He ran, I think, four or five businesses into the ground because he was so consumed with going into the woods and finding new species and painting them.

He ended up doing a grand tour of North America. Now, in his day, birds were sighted by the eyepiece of a gun. He, in many cases, shot dozens, if not hundreds of birds to be able to get the one that he wanted, to put it in the exact pose to be painted. But he ended up completing a wonderful project, “Birds of America,” in which he painted all the birds he could find in life-size poses.

CURWOOD: And how many birds is that?

OBMASCIK: Well, at the time I believe it was more than 400 birds.

CURWOOD: And Roger Tory Peterson?

OBMASCIK: Roger Tory Peterson is really the father of modern American birding. He went off on one of the great buddy trips of our time. This is way before “Thelma and Louise.” But he hooked up with the great British naturalist at the time, James Fisher. And they got a car and put a parabolic reflector on the top that would magnify bird calls. They started in Newfoundland and went down the coast, and just started looking for birds.

They found hundreds and hundreds of birds. It’s really – they wrote a book about it called “Wild America” which is this sweet time capsule of what life in America was like before the interstate highway system, before much development. They talk of driving through southern California, around Pasadena, and smelling nothing but orange blossoms.

So, Peterson, in this terrific book “Wild America,” ended up writing one tiny, little footnote, an asterisk at the bottom of a page which noted: “my year’s list, at the end of 1953, was 572 species.” Well, that was the footnote that launched the whole Big Year phenomenon. There were a lot of people who read that and said, I can match that. Or, even more – I can beat it.

CURWOOD: So they set out to do it. Now, you talk about a number of these people. I’ve got to say, the story of Ken Kauffman really fascinated me. Can you just briefly describe what Ken Kauffman did?

OBMASCIK: Sure. Ken Kauffman has kind of become the hero, in many ways, of the birding movement. He dropped out of high school at age 17, from Kansas, and decided to do a Big Year. He had no money. His father was unemployed. What he did is hitchhiked his way across America and Canada for a North American Big Year. He spent less than a thousand dollars total by thumbing his way across the country. He got beaten up in Nome, he was sleeping under viaducts. And, most amazingly, he actually lived, often, on a can of cold Campbell soup, and he would poor little Friskies Brazed Liver cat food into it, and chowed down.

CURWOOD: Cat food? Cat food!

OBMASCIK: Just to see birds. He had no money.

CURWOOD: I guess it takes a certain mentality, a personality, to succumb to the birding obsession. I know a little bit of it. I suspect my mother was maybe a bit of an obsessed birder herself. Because she used to make us get up at three in the morning, four in the morning – we’ve got to get into the car now! We’d drive out to this place, it would be freezing cold, probably wet -- and, I mean, what do you think? What kind of person is drawn to birding, and at what point does it turn, do you think, to obsession? As you call it “fowl obsession”?

OBMASCIK: It’s a slippery slope. Birding really can be addictive. One thing that amazed me when I started looking into this project was just the sheer number of people in this subculture.

There is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report that says that there are roughly 40 million Americans who try to figure out what birds are in their backyard. Now, these are mostly feeder people. They’re the ones that have got all the sunflower husks on their lawn. Forty million people – that’s about one out of five so-called adults in the country.

But that’s not a measure of the obsession. There are 3.6 million people, or a population roughly the size of Connecticut, who can identify 40 or more species solely by sight or call. I mean, think about that. Forty or more species. Most people can look and say, well, there’s a pigeon, there’s a mallard, there’s an American robin. There’s three, keep going, you need 37 more.

That’s a lot of people, a population the size of Connecticut. But the obsession, here’s where the obsession kicks in -- there are actually 2.4 million people who keep a life list of every species they’ve ever seen. A life list. When you start writing stuff down, I think that’s where the addiction kicks in. That’s a birding army the size of Arkansas. That’s how many people keep a life list.

Birdwatching at the outpost of the Aleutian Islands, Alaska. (Photo: Barbara Davis)

CURWOOD: Now, let’s see, Mark, I guess it’s fair to say that the three birders that you follow for the ’98 Big Year are obsessed with this. They’re obsessed with their quarry. But they’re very different, the three different men that I read about in your book with this one all-consuming goal. And I’m just wondering if you can give us a brief profile of each of them.

OBMASCIK: Sure. The first guy, the guy who originally sold me on the whole prospect, was a man named Sandy Komito, whom I first talked to – I found him through the American Birding Association. And I called him up, and he’s got this voice that starts about three floors below the basement. He’s from the Bronx, grew up dirt poor there, so poor that he only had one shirt that he had to wash every day by himself before he went to school.

And yet, he kind of scrapped and clawed his way to the top of one of the most macho businesses in the industrial northeast. He was an industrial contractor in New Jersey. And he started telling me about his business and roofing factories. And then he told me what he did for a year. He chased beautiful, fragile, delicate little birds. And I just thought, what a terrific contrast between the man’s man in a really tough business and a guy who’s consumed by his abiding passion for birds.

Now, the next contestant is a man called Al Levantin, who also grew up poor, penniless, but he also was fatherless. And his mother sent him away from his home in the Bronx to get contact with adults. She sent him to Boy Scout camp, which is where Al fell in love with birds.

Now Al, like many of these birders, never does anything half way. He went off on a career bender. He was working 60, 70, 80 hours a week, flying a hundred thousand miles a year in pursuit of his career. And he ended up being the CEO of a couple of companies and running a major international division for a Fortune 500 company. But he had 40 years of repressed obsession with birds.

When it came time for him to retire, his wife, who was a marriage counselor, had actually once calculated that in 37 years of marriage they had never once, not once, ever been together for 30 days in a row. So what happens when it comes time for the road warrior to retire again? He wants to do a Big Year.

Well, his wife, the marriage counselor, just thought, boy, if he’s got this passion, if he’s got this itch he need to scratch, then go do it. And Al did. He birded like a man possessed. But it’s sweet, because at the end what he found was that he really missed his wife.

Birder Greg Miller (Photo: Ned Miller)

The third man is the guy who probably gets more hugs per mile than just about any man I’ve ever met, Greg Miller. He started his Big Year on January 1st, the day before his divorce became final. And Greg had this consuming passion for birds, learned it from his father, who was the large animal veterinarian back home in Amish country in Ohio. And what Greg did, I think, is use a Big Year as kind of a way to help recover and build himself up after the despair of the divorce.

And the really sweet thing was, he every night would call his father and do strategy about a Big Year. His father was sick and not able to chase in the field as Greg was able to. And so he would say, “Dad, there’s a flamingo being seen in the Everglades. Should I use my cheaper advance tickets to go try to see the flamingo there? Or, oh no, there’s a Xantus’ hummingbird being seen in Gibsons, British Columbia. Should I take the more expensive flight to go out there?” So, little by little, they talked and built it back together. It was really sweet, as well.

CURWOOD: So how did you get hooked by birds? Because I have a sense that maybe once upon a time you were a good journalist, good reporter who didn’t know that much about birds, or maybe even care that much. And now, I suspect I’d find some binoculars out in your car.

OBMASCIK: These guys sucked me in, I confess. I started this project mainly as being interested in obsession as a fun and pretty interesting thing to write about. But you go in the field with them and their enthusiasm is just so contagious.

I remember the first time I was out in the field with Greg Miller, and we went to a field near his home and got out of the car and stood up – and he just starts calling out, “northern cardinal,” “lazuli bunting,” “house wren.” He hadn’t even lifted his binoculars. I thought he was playing a David Letterman trick on me.

But Greg, it turns out, had learned from his father to bird by ear. I mean, there are some people who know the first three chords of every Rolling Stones song and can identify them. Greg has an unbelievable ear and can identify virtually all of the homegrown bird species of North America. I mean, it’s really a remarkable skill.

CURWOOD: We’re talking with author Mark Obmascik about the greatest birding competition in history, the 1998 Big Year. We’ll hear more about the race to claim the most coveted birders prize, and we’ll talk with one birder who managed to claw his way to the top when we return. I’m Steve Curwood, and you’re listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Peter Gabriel "Shaking the Tree" SHAKING THE TREE: 16 GOLDEN GREATS (Universal Records - 2002)]

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. We’ve been talking about one of the most competitive and curious contests in the sporting world -- the North American Big Year, where the top birders in the world vie for the distinction of spotting the most birds in North America in a single year.

Joining me now is Mark Obmascik, who has written a book about the greatest Big Year in history. And also joining us from WKSU in Canton, Ohio, is Greg Miller. He’s a birder who made it to the top ranks of the 1998 North American Big Year competition. Greg, congratulations and welcome.

MILLER: Thank you, hello.

CURWOOD: Now, throughout your Big Year you’re pretty much the underdog here with the competition. I mean, the other guys are I think, what, millionaires? And you have a nice job working in a nuclear power plant, but I don’t think it pays a million bucks a year --

MILLER: (laughs)

CURWOOD: So, when do think was your most difficult time in this competition?

MILLER: Probably the most difficult time was when I got back from Alaska in June. I’d traveled across from Minnesota -- halfway back from Alaska I’d stopped in Minneapolis, drove to Yellowstone and back in four days. And I got back home, I had seen over 600 species of birds by that time. I was out of money, out of vacation, and I was sick and just really worn out.

I had had my doubts about continuing on. I have a friend in southern Maryland, Kyle Rambo, who sat down with me at supper and I was sharing some of my stories about the Big Year. And he said, “Let me get this straight: You are over 600 species of birds, you’re halfway through the year, and you’re not even going to try for 700? When do you think you’re ever going to be here again?” And he had a point.

CURWOOD: So, you’re friend says go for it, and you –

MILLER: So I knew there was a slim chance, and I decided to go ahead and go for it. I went to my boss and told him, I said, I’m at 611 species of birds -- the old record at that time was the 1987 record, 721 – I’d like a shot at the North American record. He might not have understood birding but he understood records. So he said, well, let me know what you need, and as long as you’re on schedule with your work you can continue forward.

CURWOOD: Well Greg, I understand you have a pretty incredible ear for birdcalls. We’re going to put you to the test here if you don’t mind. Are you ready?


CURWOOD: So let’s play some calls now. If you could please play the first one…


Flammulated owl (Photo: Gary M. Stolz/USFWS)

MILLER: Flammulated owl.


CURWOOD: You didn’t even hear half the hoot before you answered!

MILLER: (laughs) Well, that’s one that I’ve listened to for a long time, and one that I had quite an experience with during my Big Year.

CURWOOD: Oh really? What happened?

MILLER: Well, I was with Stuart Healy in southeastern Arizona. We were in Cave Creek Canyon. It’s inside a national forest and you can’t use tape-recorded sound of a bird to attract it there, especially owls, because there’s a lot of birder traffic and they don’t want to disturb the owls.

It was after dark. We waited for about 45 minutes and had not heard the flammulated owl at all. And I had with me an empty Lipton Tea bottle, which I blew over the top of just as a last-resort thing, wondering if it would work. And I got a response out of the owl. Whether the owl thought it was an actual toot, or whether it was just frustrated or surprised to hear something like that, I don’t know. But it called and I was able to recognize its very unique individual toots.

CURWOOD: All right, we’re going to continue with our test now. Number two, please.


MILLER: Willow ptarmigan.

CURWOOD: Uh-huh…

MILLER: (laughs) To me this has one of the most comical calls of all the birds of North America. It sounds like somebody trying to make little sounds with their throat or the back of their throat. (laughs).

CURWOOD: Now, were you to find this bird, where do you think you could find it?

MILLER: You can find them easily in Alaska. Driving along the Denali Highway they’re like chickens crossing the road. They’re quite common up there.

CURWOOD: All right, now we have another one for you Greg. Are you ready?

MILLER: Ready.

CURWOOD: Here it comes.


MILLER: Colima warbler. It’s got a trill that kind of slows down toward the end, and then it has that very distinctive abrupt end.

CURWOOD: Now, I understand it was handy for you to know this call. Can you tell me the story?

MILLER: Sure. The only place that the Colima warbler occurs north of the Rio Grande is in Big Bend National Park. And within Big Bend National Park it’s in the Chisos Mountains. And it requires a full day hike, normally, to get up to Boot Spring, which is about seven miles distant one way and probably about 7,500 feet. So it’s a moderate hike even for a normal hiker, and for a birder it’s one of the most rugged of hikes.

But knowing the song really helped me, because I got up to about 6,500 feet at Laguna Meadow, which is only about halfway to Boot Spring. And I heard these birds calling, and I waited there and I saw three birds – three of the Colima warblers there – and it saved me a full day hike to Boot Spring. So I was able to turn around and go after other birds.

CURWOOD: As I read this book, I came to realize that during much of this year, Greg, you never met your birding rivals. And the other two men, in turn, didn’t even suspect that they were contending with you. But I guess the three of you finally do cross paths. And at one point in this story you even have dinner. How do you think this meeting affected each of your performances for the rest of the year?

MILLER: Well, the first time that we all three met during our Big Year was on October the 8th. We all individually, and independent of each other, chose a boat trip, Brian Patterson boat trip off of North Carolina, and hoped to find some odd species of birds. But when we all got together, of course you have the banter about the friendly competition, but you also respect the other person for all the traveling and hard work that you know that each of them put into it. Because it’s an amazing thing to put together the logistics, the travel, and the persistence to be able to see that many species of birds.

CURWOOD: You know, something that I find truly remarkable in this story is this code of honor, apparently, among you birders. And Mark you write about it in your book, and Greg, I guess you experienced this first hand during your Big Year. I’m thinking particularly of when Al Levantin -- the two of you are neck and neck in your count towards the end here, and he actually helps you track down a white tailed ptarmigan. I mean, this is a bird that Mark describes as one of the most lusted-after prizes in birding. Why do you think Al did it when it actually put you ahead of him in the contest?

MILLER: Al’s just a nice guy. And I did the same thing for Al, too. I helped him see a gray partridge up in Boise, Idaho, after our helicopter trip to see a Himalayan snow cock. Part of the reason was because we already knew that Sandy Komito was so far ahead of us that there was no way that either one of us individually was going to beat him. And we decided to help each other see as many birds as we could.

CURWOOD: Mark, I want to get your perspective on the code of conduct, that birders in intense competition with each other seem to want to reach out and help each other. What’s that all about?

OBMASCIK: One thing that amazed me about this story is that a Big Year becomes as much a question of honor and integrity as it does about winning. These guys did help each other out. And frankly, I can’t come up with another competition that’s like that.

I mean, these guys during their year, they had a million opportunities to cheat. They could have made stuff up left and right. And frankly, with these three guys, I could never find a single time when they had made something up.

In fact, one of these guys ended up telling me – Sandy Komito – in birding, credibility is like virginity, you can only lose it once. I asked Al Levantin the same question, and he said, what’s a Big Year for? There’s no prize, there’s no trip to Disney World. Why do you do it? If you cheat, who are you cheating?

And so I think these guys really were amazingly honest, amazingly careful. And you just think of everything you read these days about, say, CEOs in the paper – Al Levantin was a CEO. He helped out a competitor at the very end. These guys have solid lists, and it’s a pretty remarkable thing.

CURWOOD: Now, let’s talk a little about the unusual nature of 1998. This Big Year coincides with this huge El Niño event, this huge unusual weather event, so nature really plays a hand in increasing the birders’ counts here. Mark, I’m just wondering if you could explain to our listeners the concept of ‘fallout’?

OBMASCIK: Fallout. Well, migration is a pretty awesome natural phenomenon. What we expect birds to do every day, what we just take for granted, is really nothing short of remarkable.

Every night in April there are millions, tens of millions of birds that take off from the Yucatan. And in one night these creatures, some of them as small as your pinky – the little ruby-throated hummingbird, you can mail ten of them for the price of a single first-class postage stamp – they take off the Yucatan, their job is to fly across the entire Gulf of Mexico. Five hundred miles without stopping. If they stop they die.

And so they launch on these epic journeys above the waves. But sometimes what happens is they get confronted by a storm. And when a storm happens – I mean a bird is giving its all, it’s exhausting all of its fat reserves, and at certain points it can literally start to cannibalize itself. It begins to consume its own muscle tissue to try to hit land. And what happens at a place like High Island, Texas, between Houston and Beaumont, which is really nothing more than a big clump of trees along the coast, these birds will literally ‘fall out,’ or drop like a hailstone from the heavens.

The first sight of land that they have, these birds, which are just teetering on the edge of death, they just drop. And they hit these branches of the trees. And suddenly there are privet bushes that look like they’re adorned with Christmas ornaments. I mean, there are summer tanagers and warblers and cardinals. It’s a wonderful, beautiful, amazing sight. But these birds are spent. These birds have given it their all, and they’ve survived. And that’s just something we’ve come to expect these remarkable creatures to do.

CURWOOD: What’s that like Greg, when you come on a scene like that?

MILLER: Normal migration is pretty impressive itself, but when you get a fallout … A powerful front is not good for the birds, but it’s something every birder dreams about. Because what happens is, instead of maybe having hundreds of birds on the ground at eye level, you have thousands of birds all around you in bushes at eye level. You can reach out and literally touch them, they’re so close. And just the experience of seeing birds that close is just amazing.

CURWOOD: This is a difficult question to ask, but I’m going to try anyway. What kind of feeling of letdown do you have when you finally see a really prized quarry? I mean, you’ve spent so much effort to track it down, my golly. You’re renting helicopters and climbing mountains and enduring seasickness to see this little squab of feathers and squawk – and then it’s over.

MILLER: Actually, the elation and the euphoria of seeing a rare bird doesn’t go away as quickly as you might imagine. Because once you make a bunch of chases and you go across the continent and you’re chasing birds – some you see, some you miss – and it’s the misses that make you savor the ones you do get to see.

Because there’s nothing nailing down that bird just because it’s reported there, just because it’s been there for a certain amount of days. The bird itself is no respecter of the birder’s ability, how much effort or time the birder took, the money spent, to get to the place where the bird is. It doesn’t pay any attention to you. You’re the one paying attention to it.

So when you see a great bird, it’s this feeling and sensation of achievement comes over you, and incredible relief that you’ve finally gotten to see the bird. There’s some birds that birders chase for years, and they have misses. I had a bird that I did not see during my Big Year, a Ross’s Gull. It’s a bird I had chased for ten years and had missed off and on for that period of ten years. So when I finally got to see it last year, it was a huge relief. It was a wonder to me to behold it. It might not mean so much to somebody else, but it did to me.

Looking for birds at Gambell, the St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. (Photo: Greg Miller)

OBMASCIK: I remember when Greg finally saw his Ross’s Gull, what an amazing thing that was. Because Greg, if I remember right, had traveled with a friend through a pretty hellacious snowstorm in the northeast, and drove all the way to Niagara Falls, where it was maybe ten below zero. The snow was out there flying sideways, there was already a foot piled up on the ground. And Greg saw his bird. He got his Ross’s Gull, and then wondered, where is everybody else? That’s a great bird, there should be a lot of people here.

MILLER: (laughter) There were only a half a dozen people there looking for it. But it was a blizzard, and it was Rochester, New York. (laughs)

CURWOOD: Well I don’t want to give away the end of your book, Mark, but suffice it to say it’s certainly thrilling right up until the end. And Greg Miller, do you think you have it in you to try a second Big Year?

MILLER: Well I’ve got it in me to try a second year, but it takes two of my favorite resources: time and money (laughs). So given the time and the money, I’d be happy to do it again.

CURWOOD: Well I want to thank you both for speaking with me today. Mark Obmascik is author of “The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession.” Mark, thanks so much.

OBMASCIK: Thanks a million, that was fun.

CURWOOD: And Greg Miller is a birding guide in Sugar Creek, Ohio. Greg, it’s a great pleasure.

MILLER: It’s a pleasure.

[MUSIC: Lang Elliott and Ted Mack "Dakota Chorus" SONGBIRD PORTRAITS (NatureSound Studio - 1999)]

CURWOOD: You can hear our program any time on our Web site. The address is livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org. You can reach us at comments@loe.org. Once again, comments@loe.org. Our postal address is 20 Holland Street, Somerville, MA, 02144. You can call our listener line at 800 218-9988. That’s 800 218-9988. CDs, tapes and transcripts are $15.

Audio Features

Colima Warbler

Flammulated Owl

Willow Ptarmigan

Related links:
- American Birding Association
- “The Big Year – A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession”

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Emerging Science Note/Microbial Fuel Cells

CURWOOD: Just ahead: organic winegrowers go after genetically engineered crops at the ballot box. First, this note on emerging science from Cynthia Graber.


GRABER: Many treatment plants use bacteria to clean wastewater. Now, scientists at Penn State have shown that this waste-eating bacteria can be used to generate electricity in fuel cells, while cleaning the water at the same time. The process works like this: As bacteria consume their food – in this case, the organic matter in wastewater – they shed electrons. These electrons are then captured by a wire in the fuel cell. The wire transfers these electrons to a chamber of oxygen. This flow of electrons creates electricity.

Until now, scientists have used simple sugars, such as glucose, to power the bacteria in these so-called microbial fuel cells. Researchers are hoping to refine the wastewater technology so that larger amounts of electricity are produced. Eventually, they say, providing power on site could help lower the cost of operating wastewater plants. Developing countries could benefit from this technology by reducing costs of cleaning contaminated water, thereby slowing down the spread of disease. That’s this week’s note on emerging science, I’m Cynthia Graber.

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

ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and Aveda - an Earth-conscious beauty company committed to preserving natural resources and finding more sustainable ways of doing business, information available at Aveda.com; the Noyce Foundation, dedicated to improving math and science instruction from kindergarten through grade 12; the Annenberg Foundation; and the Kellogg Foundation, helping people help themselves by investing in individuals, their families and their communities. On the web at wkkf.org. This is NPR, National Public Radio.

[MUSIC: Star Wars: Figrin d'An and the Modal Nodes "Cantina Band #2" (RCA - 1997)]

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GM No! Mendocino?

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood, and coming up – the greening of final goodbyes.

But first, March 2nd is a critical day in the Democratic race for president. Many Congressional and Senate primary races are also determined on this Super Tuesday. At the same time, residents of a wine-producing region on the North California coast decide whether they want their county officials to do something no local government has done before – ban the planting of genetically engineered crops. David Johns reports from Mendocino County.

JOHNS: Mendocino County is in a rugged area north of San Francisco carved with sweeping valleys blanketed in oak and redwood trees. The rough terrain attracts people with an appreciation for the outdoors, and Els Cooperrider is one of them. She lives with her husband in a one-room cabin with no phone or electricity. By day, she works in the city of Ukiah where she operates the nation’s first certified organic brewpub and restaurant.


COOPERRIDER: You know, this is a microbrewery. Our son Brett, this is where he does all of his wonderful work. He makes 12, 13 different lagers and ales here in this small system…

JOHNS: A network of giant copper kettles, fermenters, and pipes crowd a corner of the pub. For their restaurant, the Cooperriders buy meat and eggs from local organic farmers. Els, who’s a medical researcher by training, realized several years ago that there are no genetically modified crops yet in Mendocino County. She decided she wanted to keep it that way.

COOPERRIDER: When we rearrange the basic DNA of a host organism into which forcibly we have put totally foreign genes from a totally unrelated organism, we don’t really know what the consequences are.

JOHNS: So Cooperrider and friends drafted an initiative to ban the growing of genetically modified foods in Mendocino County, now called Measure H. Because organic agriculture is a growing industry in the county, she soon gained support from a number of organic growers. Like Paul Frey, who operates Frey Vineyards and Winery in Redwood Valley. He wants to preserve his special sense of Mendocino County.

FREY: There’s such a thing in wine and grape terminology called “terroire” which is sort of a sense of place, or the quality of a place, and the type of foods that come out of that place. Each region is distinct and unique, and people look for that distinction.

JOHNS: Frey and other organic growers believe GMO-free status will give them a marketing advantage over Napa and Sonoma counties, especially when selling to places like Europe and Japan that don’t want GMO wines.

Some 3,500 of Mendocino County’s 18,000 acres of farmland are certified organic. Wine grapes are the region’s primary crop, and the industry is increasingly embracing the organic movement. Fetzer Vineyards, the largest winery in the county, announced it will soon use only organic grapes.

Nobody is growing GMO grapes outdoors yet, but researchers are developing them in laboratories. If GMO grapes are ever planted in vineyards, they could cross-pollinate with grapes in organic fields. Peggy LeMaux, a plant science specialist at UC Berkeley, says genetic contamination from GMOs is almost a certainty once they’re outside. She demonstrates with a corn stalk in her lab.

LEMAUX: So, this is a corn plant and if you tap it like this, you can see all the pollen coming down, hundreds of thousands of little pollen grains. And their job is to go down and hit a silk on the ear, which contains the female parts. And then you’ll get the development of a corn seed.

JOHNS: So, if this was on the border of Lake County and Mendocino…

LEMAUX: And a wind came along? Yeah, it’s gonna go. That’s what it was intended to do, that’s what corn does best.

JOHNS: LeMaux doesn’t think this mixing would be harmful. And some Mendocino County winegrowers don’t either. Bill Crawford owns McDowell Vineyards in Hopland. He thinks proponents of Measure H are afraid of progress.

CRAWFORD: Well, so anything you don’t understand you’re going to be afraid of? I think that’s hiding your head in the sand. There's a lot of things that we don't understand that you can't just shut the door to 'em.

JOHNS: Crawford says he doesn’t want to miss out on any benefits that may come from genetic engineering – such as a cure for the dreaded grape plague known as Pierce’s disease. And he points out Measure H won’t apply to the whole county – for example, Indian lands.

CRAWFORD: So I live right next to a reservation. That law will not pertain to a reservation so I am banned from using it but the reservation could use GMOs and I could get cross-pollinated. That’s just crazy.

JOHNS: Peter Bradford, president of the Mendocino County Farm Bureau, agrees that the county shouldn’t be in the business of regulating GMOs.

BRADFORD: It would be like Mendocino County developing their own Army or their own highway tax system. It’s totally superfluous. We have a government that does the job of regulation, and let them do their job.

JOHNS: The biotech industry badly wants to derail the measure. The DC-based industry-lobbying group Crop Life America has funneled over 300,000 dollars into the No on H campaign for radio spots like this one:

WOMAN: Well, suppose some known crop threat like Pierce’s disease…

MAN: Yeah, that stuff is bad for the grapevines.

WOMAN: Uh huh, or another crop killer hits the county. And some new biotech product is needed to control it. Measure H would prohibit its use.

MAN: Well that doesn’t make sense

JOHNS: A well-financed ad campaign like this one quashed a recent effort in Oregon to require food labels for all genetically modified ingredients. But most people in Mendocino County seem to think this initiative – sponsored by a scientist and backed by a cadre of organic growers – will be a much closer vote. For Living on Earth, I'm Dave Johns in Ukiah

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Green Burials

[MUSIC: Thoman Newman "Six Feet Under theme" SIX FEET UNDER SNDTRK (Universal - 2002)]

CURWOOD: Up until the 1900s, burial was a family affair in America. People were laid out in their homes and relatives were the ones who dug and tended to the graves of their loved ones.

Today, funerals and cemeteries are the domain of big business – taking in an estimated 20 billion dollars a year. Now, a South Carolina doctor is reviving old traditions, and creating some new ones. Mitzi Rapkin reports.


MACDONALD: Now, I think we are at area 19 right here. Oh yeah, see, there you go. Ken…

CORDELL: That’s us?

MACDONALD: That’s our spot, what do you think?

RAPKIN: It sounds as if Babs Macdonald and Ken Cordell are picking out a camping spot but, in fact, they are choosing where they want to be buried. After one visit, they were convinced Ramsey Creek Preserve in Westminster, South Carolina was the place for them.

MACDONALD: Something has to happen to you after you die, and this to me is just the perfect answer.

RAPKIN: It is rare to hear someone so ebullient about their final resting place, let alone making the effort to drive two hours to hike there. As death transforms our bodies, Ramsey Creek is transforming the way burial can be done in America. Dr. Billy Campbell created the memorial preserve in an effort to bring an ecological sensibility to American cemeteries.

Dr. Billy Campbell (Photo: Mitzi Rapkin)

CAMPBELL: I don’t know a lot of people who want to go to a contemporary cemetery and hang out with the plastic flowers. There are some efforts being made to green up the contemporary cemeteries but what we’re doing here is a ground-up redesign of what a cemetery is.

RAPKIN: The memorial preserve is a bouquet of trees and indigenous plants. Campbell doesn’t control the landscape, only the rules for burial. There are no embalmed bodies allowed at Ramsey Creek. People are buried in untreated, biodegradable containers such as wood or cardboard caskets, cotton shrouds or directly in the ground. Cremated remains may be scattered or buried there. If headstones are used, they must lie flat on the ground and be from the same geological strata as the preserve. For Babs MacDonald this is a refreshing option.

MACDONALD: I’ve always just wanted to be put in the ground. I mean it’s not natural to be embalmed and put in a casket and all sealed up.

RAPKIN: In 2001, nearly two and a half million people died in America. While cremation accounts for 26 percent of that number, it leaves nearly 1.8 million bodies needing burial every year. Most of them will be embalmed, although it is not required by law except in rare cases. Embalming fluid contains chemicals such as formaldehyde which is regulated as an air pollutant and toxic substance by the EPA. Cremation also causes pollution. Many who are cremated still get embalmed depending on when and how the funeral will be carried out. The cremation process itself releases toxins such as dioxin into the atmosphere and burns fossil fuels in the process. Campbell considers cremation the second best option after non-toxic burial, but laments that burial in America is far from natural.

CAMPBELL: This whole idea of kind of preserving the bodies with chemicals and putting them in boxes inside boxes under lawns that are meticulously groomed to keep nature out – at once it was alien to my core beliefs. It was almost like we were getting the bodies ready for some afterlife, you know, dress people in their very best clothes and keep them like they’re not dead

RAPKIN: In America and Canada, embalming is the norm. Refrigeration can take its place but many funeral homes do not have the capacity to hold more than a few bodies. Muslims and Jews are among the religious groups that already practice non-toxic interment. Churchyards, family farms and historic cemeteries have been the sites of non-toxic burial for centuries. While Ramsey Creek’s apparent novelty may be in resurrecting traditional ways, the core of Campbell’s mission is more ambitious: to save and restore land through ecologically sound burial.

CAMPBELL: One of the things I think is attractive about a memorial nature preserve is that people honor places of the dead. And in this setting, where we have people buried throughout the woods, it makes it I think extremely unlikely that even a hundred years from now, or two hundred years from now, anyone would want to come in here and put in a Wal-Mart supercenter.


(Photo: Mitzi Rapkin)


RAPKIN: With three ridgelines sloping downward to Ramsey Creek, there are a variety of habitats on the property. In the past, the land was both logged and farmed for cotton. Campbell has restored it to its original wetland, stands of hardwoods and four shoals. Hiking through the preserve, the graves are barely recognizable. They blend into the forest floor like a decomposing leaf.


RAMEY: You wouldn’t think it’s a grave, you would think it’s just some rocks laying here with a pile of dirt, you know. It’s pretty with the vegetation.

RAPKIN: Bonnie Ramey buried her husband Charles here in 2002. His grave is an oval shaped mound ringed with rocks. Plants and flowers sprout from all sides. Ramey hikes through the preserve every week for peace and meditation.

Bonnie Ramey (Photo: Mitzi Rapkin)

RAMEY: I like the concept of buying a place here and it saves the land. A lot of people here don’t realize how fast habitat is going. I mean it’s like a vacuum, it’s going whoosh.

RAPKIN: The Rameys’ effort to save land was matched by a savings in their wallet. While the $1,950 fee for a plot at Ramsey Creek is comparable to market price, other costs were greatly reduced. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average funeral in America costs more than $5,000 not including burial. Caskets from a funeral home typically run from $2,000 up to $20,000. Bonnie Ramey paid $300 dollars for a pine casket. The funeral service held at Charles’ grave cost nothing. Most burials at Ramsey Creek follow this model. Billy Campbell says that the 32-acre preserve is not as big as he would like; but it is the beginning of an innovative way to save land.

CAMPBELL: With what we’re doing we’re finding that we attract people who never would give a thousand dollars for a nature preserve. We have found, for example, that we are getting far fewer motivated greens than we would have expected. And we’re getting a lot more people who say they want to be buried in their overalls because that’s the way their granddaddy was buried.

MOUNTCASTLE: If you’re from a family that buries in the ground, you’re probably going to bury in the ground. If you’re from a cremation family, that’s all you know and you’re probably going to cremate.

A gravesite at Ramsey Creek Preserve. (Photo: Mitzi Rapkin)

RAPKIN: Meg Mountcastle has been a funeral director for 26 years. She co-owns Mountcastle Funeral Home with her husband in Virginia. She recognizes that burial arrangements are a personal choice made in an ever-expanding field of options. Campbell’s contention that embalming fluid and caskets litter the earth is not lost on her; but she frames it differently.

MOUNTCASTLE: I don’t want to say there is not validity in it, but I don’t think it’s a concern as much as maybe they’re saying. At least for me it’s not. But again, it’s to each their own. There’s plenty of room for every idea that’s out there.

RAPKIN: And ideas there are. Bob Fells is the External Chief Operating Officer and general counsel for the International Cemetery and Funeral Association.

FELLS: Today we are seeing much more of an interest in personalized funerals, personalized burials -- the memorialization concept. People do not want cookie-cutter funerals, they want something that makes a statement about the decedent.

RAPKIN: Billy Campbell doesn’t have any bones to pick with the funeral industry; he just sees the potential of another option.

CAMPBELL: You know, if we could just get ten percent of the public, of the boomer generation, to decide that they would rather go with a memorial nature preserve, the amount of cash that could be used to save and restore land could make a tremendous difference.

RAPKIN: Ultimately, Campbell hopes to see a million acres of land across the United States set aside for memorial preserves. While Ramsey Creek is only a fraction of this, Campbell is working to create a similar project in California. For Living on Earth I’m Mitzi Rapkin in Westminster, South Carolina.

Related links:
- - Ramsey Creek Memorial Preserve
- - International Cemetery and Funeral Association

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CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Next week – it’s a dog’s life.

KATZ: You know, the boomers created the notion of the gifted and talented child, and now they’ve created the idea of the gifted and talented dog.

CURWOOD: With dog custody at the heart of bitter divorce cases and vet bills into the thousands, some say we’re going too far these days to please our pets.

SCHROFF: I don’t really have a professional opinion…about dog yoga [LAUGHTER]. I don’t.

CURWOOD: It’s coddled canines next time on Living on Earth. And between now and then you can hear us anytime and get the stories behind the news by going to livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org.

We leave you this week – in a marketplace of sound.


CURWOOD: Hildegard Westerkamp recorded these street vendors of New Delhi and mixed their voices to reflect the rhythm of life in the Indian city.

[EARTH EAR: Hildegard Westerkamp “Gently Penetrating: beneath the sounding surfaces of another place” INTO INDIA (Earsay - 2002)]

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. You can find us at livingonearth.org. Our staff includes Nathan Marcy, Susan Shepherd, and Tom Simon. Al Avery runs our website. Our interns are Christopher Bolick and Nal Tero. Special thanks to Ernie Silver.

And thanks and a fond goodbye to engineer Aaron Bishop, who is heading off to the dot com world to become a producer. Alison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar. I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes form the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm – organic yogurt, cultured soy, and smoothies. Ten percent of their profits are donated to support environmental causes and family farms. Learn more at Stonyfield.com. Support also comes from NPR member stations, the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the Oak Foundation, for coverage of marine issues.

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