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

July 7, 2006

Air Date: July 7, 2006



Carbon Black / Vicki Monks

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Ever wonder what makes tires black? It's fine pieces of black carbon. But producer Vicki Monks reports that Oklahomans who live near a plant that manufactures the product say they've been left unprotected and it may be time to give an Indian reservation control over environmental regulation. (15:15)

The Make Love, Not War Species

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Bonobos, members of the great ape family, have very elaborate, and unique, social and sexual behaviors. Host Steve Curwood talks with Dr. Amy Parish, scientific advisor for the Bonobo Conservation Initiative, about this peace-loving and female-dominated species. (14:30)

Surf’s Up! / Bonnie Auslander

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Commentator Bonnie Auslander ponders the pros and cons of sanitized nature CD’s. (03:45)

Emerging Science Note/Mosquito Fish / Emily Torgrimson

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Living on Earth's Emily Torgrimson reports on efforts to use guppies in the battle against dengue fever. (01:30)

Home Grown / Bill McKibben

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Writer Bill McKibben takes on a bet that he can make it through a winter eating food grown only in his native Vermont. (08:00)

Mortgage Lifter Tomatoes

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Living on Earth's Jeff Young learns the history of one of his favorite tomatoes: Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter. The man who developed it had a life as colorful as the plant that bears his name. (07:00)

This week's EarthEar selection
listen / download

Waters fall at the Gorge at Blue Ledge in the Adirondack Mountains.

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Amy Parish
REPORTER: Vicki Monks, Bill McKibben, Jeff Young
COMMENTATOR: Bonnie Auslander
SCIENCE NOTE: Emily Torgrimson


CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living On Earth


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. Look at a group of chimpanzees and a group of humans, and in both cases the males push for dominance. And no wonder, chimp and human DNA is almost the same. But is it just DNA? Because among Bonobo apes, who are just as genetically close to humans as the chimps, the females rule - even if some researchers are reluctant to call it matriarchy.

PARISH: I even have colleagues who are chimp researchers who refuse to accept that the pattern is female dominance. So, for instance, they call it "strategic male deference," which basically means ‘Well, you know, of course the males could be in charge if they wanted to but for some reason they're stepping back and letting females have the upper hand, maybe so they get more sex out of it.’

CURWOOD: Bisecting bonobo behavior and more, this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.

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ANNOUNCER: Support for Living On Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

Carbon Black

Continental Carbon plant near Ponca City, Oklahoma (Richard Ray Whitman)

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living On Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. According to the Environmental Protection Agency more than one-third of Americans live in counties with unhealthy levels of soot or small particles in the air they breath. Scientists only recently have begun to understand the dangers of these microscopic particles. They are easily inhaled and can contribute to a host of diseases.

In Oklahoma, near the border of Ponca Indian land, community members say one industrial plant has dumped so much carbon soot into the air their farm animals are changing color. Ponca tribal leaders accuse state and federal officials of ignoring the problem. It's one reason the Poncas and a dozen other Oklahoma tribes have decided that maybe it’s time they had more authority over their air and water. Vicki Monks has the story.


MONKS: On a small acreage just south of Ponca City, Oklahoma, John Hough runs a herd of white-faced sheep, a breed prized for pure white wool. Problem is, these sheep appear closer to black - an oily, sooty black.

HOUGH: That one right there in the middle, look at her nose, around her nose nostrils, look how black it is. And up past her eyes, see them streaks up past her eyes? That all should be white. It's a pathetic thing to see some kind of an animal like that.

John Hough's white sheep changed color from the carbon dust. (Credit: Vicki Monks

MONKS: Mr. Hough blames the condition of his sheep on smokestacks at a factory just up the road. It produces what's called carbon black. The plant super-heats waste oil from a nearby refinery to produce ultra-fine carbon particles. They're used primarily to strengthen the rubber in tires; it's the ingredient that makes tires black.


MONKS: A stubborn black film covers just about everything on the Hough property - from the tractor to the trees. A short walk across the grass, and I notice that my shoes and pants have collected black dust halfway up to my knees.

HOUGH: We are inhaling it. Everything around us is inhaling it because it's a real fine powdery dust and we're breathing it just as much as them sheep are.

MONKS: Carbon black itself might not seem to be harmful - it's pure carbon, the basic building block of nature - but frequently, other toxic chemicals are attached. The particles can contribute to heart disease, chronic bronchitis and asthma. California last year listed carbon black as a cancer-causing agent.

UCLA Toxicology Professor John Froines is chairman of California's Scientific Review Panel on Toxic Air Contaminants.

According to Professor Froines, it's generally accepted that particles may inflame the lungs, leading to mutations that can develop into cancer. And, new research is finding that ultra-fine particles may damage other parts of the body.

FROINES: It's not just the issue of penetration deeply into the lung. You get them in your nose, as well, and they end up in your brain, and so you have a potential for inflammatory effects in the brain, central nervous system and you have a potential for carcinogenesis, as well.

MONKS: Professor Froines explains that carbon particles lodged inside the body can actually produce other toxic compounds--in a sense, becoming engines that continuously manufacture substances with the potential to cause cancer.

FROINES: So the particles themselves can produce more damage to DNA than you might anticipate.


Continental Carbon plant near Ponca City, Oklahoma.
(Credit: Richard Ray Whitman)

MONKS: Continental Carbon's original owner, Continental Oil, Conoco, built this carbon black plant in 1953 on former Ponca Indian reservation land. Back then, Thurman and Thelma Buffalohead lived next door. Thelma says the top man at Continental Carbon assured the family that the company would build a state of the art plant that would never pollute.

THELMA: I said, “Will it get everything black?” “No, no, no, it'll be all right,” he said.

THURMAN: I hate to say it, but that's a lie, telling people that and then it's dirty. I tell you it's dirty, still that way.

MONKS: Thurman Buffalohead has a Ponca word for that.

THURMAN: Eeooshishta - that's what liar means, lying means. Eeooshista and eegah moneeteday. Even that north side of carbon black, there was a stream of clear water. We used to go down there and sit in that creek. But after that you couldn't do that, you'd get yourself black, you know, touching everything down that creek.

MONKS: The Buffaloheads say the land around the creek turned black soon after the plant was up and running, and it wasn't long before the carbon black had gotten into everything.

THELMA: I had some chickens that were white and before I knew it they were black chickens. And you'd wake up with our nose, just all black soot in the nose.

THURMAN: Oh, sister, it's just that smell! It goes into your nostril and I mean you sleep with it, yeah. That's all I could tell you. It gets on your clothes and makes everything black. Eeooshista cha ah, ehdah a gah a la bashi. But they don't care, they still going to lie and lie and lie and lie and that's why we're in trouble, yeah, we're in trouble today.

MONKS: The Buffalohead family lived on part of an Indian allotment that once belonged to Harriet Rush in The Battle. The land had stayed in the family since 1895. But by the 1960s, Mrs. Rush in The Battle's descendants wanted to get away from the plant. They tried to sell the property, but no one wanted it. It was already too contaminated, and documents show the government was aware of the problem.

Richard Ray Whitman reads from a 1969 memo written by the local Bureau of Indian Affairs superintendent:

WHITMAN: “Regarding Ponca allotment 435, Harriet Rush in the Battle. The subject allotment has been offered for public sale on several occasions without success because of heavy contamination from the carbon plant operated by Continental Oil. The owners have demanded some action be taken by the Bureau, therefore, it is requested that an investigation be conducted. James D. Hale, Superintendent”

MONKS: Four years after this memo was written, the BIA signed off on the sale of this contaminated land to the Ponca Tribal Housing Authority for the purpose of building low-income Indian homes. Because the Rush in the Battle property was classified as restricted Indian land, the sale could not have taken place without BIA approval. According to BIA Spokeswoman Nedra Darling, no one currently at the agency remembers the case. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development constructed 11 homes on the property - directly downwind of the plant.


SIMPSON: They don't care about us Indians out here. And they knew that this land was contaminated but they put us here anyway just to sell the land, and that was wrong.

MONKS: Scotty Simpson lives in one of the Ponca homes. He discovered the BIA memo when he went digging through old government records to find out how he and his family ended up in this mess.

SIMPSON: I got two little granddaughters, and sometimes they come in and look like they rolled in charcoal it's so bad. Is this harming our health? Nobody knows. Or nobody cares.

MONKS: Thurman and Thelma Buffalohead say they still haven't escaped the effects of the plant, even though they now live more than a mile from Continental Carbon.

THELMA: And I smell the fumes early in the morning, about four or five o'clock they turn it loose. I smell it a lot of times and it just makes me sick and I told my husband, [SPEAKING PONCA] “Ongooli di blati dee wheena.” (LAUGHS)

THURMAN: She said whatever we smell it stinks, she said.

When her family lived near the Continental Carbon plant, seven year old Angela Howe was never allowed outdoors to play.(Credit: Richard Ray Whitman)

THELMA: He got sick a while back, he just got weak you know, and he had a lesion in his lungs. It could be cause from the carbon black, that's what I think.

MONKS: It's likely the Buffaloheads are smelling carbon disulfide, a waste gas that smells like rotting radishes. According to EPA, it's one of several toxic compounds released from the plant. Since the 1950s, Continental Carbon has been sold several times and now is owned by China Synthetic Rubber and the powerful Koo family of Taiwan. Through its public relations epresentative Blake Lewis, the company said there's no link between carbon black and any health problems in the community. In fact, the company claims that the pervasive black dust is not carbon black at all, and it denies responsibility for Mr. Hough's blackened sheep.

LEWIS: The company has always operated within the standards or expectations, and in those rare instances where there's been a problem we've addressed it. We've made repairs to the plant when repairs were warranted. And I struggle a little bit with people that are making allegations that run against what I understand to be the facts in the matter.

MONKS: Mr. Lewis blames most of the complaints about carbon black on disgruntled labor union members and Ponca Indian activists.

LEWIS: We know that there's been some individuals in the past who have raised environmental questions, basically as a corporate campaign to smear the company. But the fact of the matter is we have never had to stop operations because of an environmental problem. My view is that this plant is operating in a responsible fashion and will continue to do so in the future.

MONKS: But complaints have been rolling in for decades, sometimes at the rate of more than 100 a month. DEQ, the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, is the agency responsible for controlling pollutants in the state. Every time someone complains, DEQ sends an inspector to take samples of the black dust. But, in nearly every instance, lab results indicate no carbon black. Spokeswoman Monty Elder now concedes the lab test was never valid.

ELDER: We didn't think the test was giving us reliable results but there was no other test to have done. Truly, the test was useless.

MONKS: In order to be considered carbon black, the lab looks for particles that are perfectly smooth and round and tiny, smaller than one four-millionth of an inch.

ELDER: Here's the problem. We believe that as soon as carbon black, basically, leaves the stack or leaves the facility, it starts to stick together. It starts to stick to mold particles. It sticks to dust particles. It sticks to dog hair. You send it to the lab and they look at it with the electron microscope, it's no longer round, and it's no longer that very small size. So, therefore, it cannot be considered, by this test, as carbon black.

MONKS: Until recently, the state also insisted that inspectors must actually see dust particles crossing over the factory fence before taking any action.

ELDER: If people called and said there's dust coming off the plant, we would have to send someone to the facility and they would have to physically see the dust coming off the facility. And, depending on weather conditions or depending on how close the local DEQ office was to that facility to get there, we may or may not have seen dust coming off.

MONKS: With inspectors almost never present to witness blowing dust, and with the lab tests coming back negative, DEQ rarely took action in response to complaints. Nevertheless, spokeswoman Elder says she believes the agency was doing the best it could to prevent pollution.

ELDER: I absolutely do, and EPA agrees with us. We have taken all appropriate actions.

MONKS: That response doesn't satisfy community members who've formed an unusual coalition of Indians, factory workers and conservative white farmers. Under escalating criticism from these groups, DEQ changed its approach and, a few months ago, stepped up its inspections inside the plant.

Inspectors found piles of carbon black, drifting and exposed to the air, and carbon-laden waste gas escaping through corroded pipes. The plant was pumping nearly twice its legal limit of carbon dust into the air - an average of 89 pounds every hour.


MONKS: At the Ponca headquarters in White Eagle, Oklahoma, a few miles south of the carbon black plant, a group of tribal leaders have gathered to talk. They say they don't trust the DEQ to follow through with sanctions.

CAMP: We have turned to them for help for the last several years and instead they turn around and help the polluters. Of course, we cannot trust the state of Oklahoma.

MONKS: Carter Camp advises the tribal council. As a long-time national leader of the American Indian Movement, Mr. Camp says he sees similar pollution problems on reservations all over the country.

CAMP: We think this has to be stopped, and the only way this is going to be stopped is for Indian tribes to be able to regulate their own environmental quality of the people.

MONKS: It's a complicated process but under Federal law, Indian tribes can win the right to set and enforce their own environmental standards. The Navajo Nation and the Pawnee tribe of Oklahoma did so recently.

The Poncas say tribal regulation couldn't help but improve on the DEQ's record. For its part, the Oklahoma agency does, at last, appear to be cracking down on the carbon black pollution. In December, the DEQ for the first time cited Continental Carbon for excess emissions, and the company agreed to spend $1.6 million to repair leaks and clean up drifting carbon dust.

Throughout most of the last century, America's Indian tribes had little power to prevent environmental degradation of their lands. But Carter Camp believes that increasing scientific and legal expertise within the tribes is gradually changing that dynamic.

CAMP: We're still here and we're going to be here in the future and we're going to clean up our land and we're going to ask the American people to ally themselves with us and help us to clean up this land and then finally maybe we'll clean up America. Ya-ooh!

MONKS: In January, Continental Carbon paid a $5,000 fine, the first in its 50-year history.


MONKS: For Living on Earth, I'm Vicki Monks.


CURWOOD: We’d like to thank Richard Ray Whitman and John McGuinness for their help on this story.

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[MUSIC: “Ponca War Dance” All the Best From the American Indian (Madacy)]

CURWOOD: Coming up monkey see monkey do. Make love not war, bonobo style. Stay tuned to Living On Earth.

The Make Love, Not War Species

(Photo: © Frans Lanting)

CURWOOD: It’s Living On Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

[MUSIC: Ozric Tentacles “Eternal” from ‘Erpland’ (Flameshovel Records – 2004)]


CURWOOD: That's a bonobo ape summoning the rest of the gang together. Now, the bonobo is as genetically similar to humans as the chimpanzee but unlike chimps these relatively peaceful creatures live in matriarchal societies and use sex to deal with competition and anger.

The only place where they are found in nature is a small wedge of forest south of the Congo River in Africa and their numbers have been falling in the face of civil unrest, logging, and hunting. So, the Bonobo Conservation Initiative is creating a refuge for them called the Bonobo Peace Forest.

Joining me now is Amy Parish. She teaches anthropology and gender studies at the University of Southern California and is a scientific advisor to the Bonobo Conservation Initiative. Hello.

PARISH: Hello, Steve. Thanks for having me.

CURWOOD: Can you start by just telling us a little bit about the bonobo? What do they look like? Where do they live? What do they eat? That sort of thing.

PARISH: If you saw one you might think that they’re a chimpanzee because they’re very closely related to chimpanzees, and yet there are some differences that become apparent if you watch them for a day. For instance, their vocalizations are much higher pitched. So if you’ve heard chimps and then you heard bonobos, any layperson can clearly hear the difference between the two.

Amy Parish and a bonobo friend.

But the bigger differences are in their behavioral patterns. So in chimpanzees you’ll see a lot of dominance displays throughout the day and a fair amount of aggression going on, as well as grooming and peaceful interactions. But in bonobos you tend to see a lot more affiliative interactions and a lot more sexual interactions going on throughout the course of the day.

CURWOOD: Now, the bonobo have gotten quite a bit of interest because of their, well, shall we put it, their rather interesting social life.


CURWOOD: And you’ve been an observer of that for years. Tell me more about how the bonobo interacts socially compared to chimps or even compared to, you know, us, the great ape people.

PARISH: Bonobos have a reputation as the make love not war species, and they have that reputation because they have a very elaborate repertoire of sexual behavior that seems very similar to what we see in humans. So there are face to face matings. There are same-sex copulations between females and also between males. There are copulations that don’t occur around the time of ovulation, so they have what we call “continuous receptivity.” They can have sex anytime.

You see sexual interactions on almost any day that you’re out watching the bonobos, and they seem to be particularly concentrated during times when there might otherwise be tension. So when food is being put out for the bonobos, or when they encounter a fruit tree in the wild, or just after aggression, they resolve that aggression using sex. And so they have their make love not war reputation because of the kind of repertoire they have and the context in which they use it.

CURWOOD: So this is really the matriarchal society?

PARISH: It really is. And not everybody’s been willing to accept that because it is so rare in mammals to see patterns of female dominance. For so long our only model that we could use to guess about our evolution, and what our last common ancestor would have looked like with chimpanzees five million years ago, was a chimpanzee model. We’ve been studying chimps for forty years in the wild and so we know a lot about their patriarchy and about their patterns of warfare, and that seems similar to humans.

(© Frans Lanting)

We only learned about bonobos much later –they were only recognized as a separate species in the 1920s. And what we’re seeing with bonobos is a very different pattern: female dominance; resolving conflict using sex; no infanticide; not necessarily only the males hunting and eating meat. And so, not everybody’s comfortable with the idea that our last common ancestor might have been matriarchal, maybe sort of aggressive towards males.

CURWOOD: So, bonobo guys are kind of mellow, is that the bottom line here?

PARISH: You could call them mellow. Sometimes they’ve been characterized as mama’s boys, or henpecked.

CURWOOD: [LAUGHS] Mama’s boys!

PARISH: [LAUGHS] Because unlike chimpanzees, where for a male chimp to enter the adult male dominance hierarchy he has to first dominate all females in the group. So as he approaches adolescence he begins to become very aggressive towards all of the females and then eventually, when he’s dominated all of the females, including his mother, he can enter the very lowest ranks of the adult male dominance hierarchy.

In bonobos, males maintain their relationships with their mothers throughout their lives. They never assert dominance over them. In fact, the mothers actually become involved when males have fights with each other, and whoever has the higher ranking mother wins the fight.


PARISH: We know that it’s son’s rank that is dependent on mother’s rank, and not the other way around, because when a high-ranking mother dies that previously high-ranking son will immediately fall in rank and become peripheral on the edges of the group. And so it’s clear that males really need their mothers throughout their lives to help them with their dominance interactions. And males even, sons even, benefit from getting to mate with their mother’s friends.

(© Frans Lanting)

I started noticing that in captivity females were launching cooperative attacks against males sometimes, inflicting serious injuries on them; and as I went from zoo to zoo I saw the same pattern happening again and again. And each zoo thought that there was something wrong with their particular male so they had spun these stories to account for the strange behavior. Stories like, ‘oh, the male was ill when he was young, and a female keeper took him home and must have made him soft, must have spoiled him somehow and now he doesn’t know how to stand up to females.’

And the idea is that the natural order of things would be, of course, that females are submissive towards males and not the other way around.

CURWOOD: How comfortable do you think the public is with an ape society where women, in fact, are in power? And that they’re pretty closely linked to us?

PARISH: People are uncomfortable with the idea that females might hold the power because it’s just so contrary to our understanding of the natural order of things. And so I even have colleagues who are chimpanzee researchers who refuse to accept that the pattern is female dominance. So, for instance, they call it “strategic male deference” [LAUGHS] which basically means, well, you know, of course the males could be in charge if they wanted to, but for strategic reasons they’re stepping back and letting females have the upper hand, maybe. Maybe so they get more sex out of it, is the basic idea.


PARISH: And, you know, we never say that when it’s male dominance. We never say, ‘oh, well, obviously the females could be dominant if they wanted to, but for strategic reasons they’re stepping back.’ I’ve even seen in scientific literature the pattern that we see in bonobos has been described as “male chivalry,” which is not at all an empirical term for a scientific paper. It’s not chivalry, it’s just that females have the upper hand.

In zoos, people feel very sorry for the males when they get injuries from the females, and the zoos always want to intervene. So, for instance, in one zoo where I work they decided they were going to give a particular female who is prone to attacking males a time-out whenever she engages in this behavior so she would learn, you know, not to attack males. And I said, ‘well, you do realize that this is a pattern across zoos, and this is part of the natural repertoire of bonobo behavior.’ And they said, ‘we don’t want our females attacking males, and so we’re going to try to intervene.’

And what’s interesting to me about that is in chimpanzees it’s males who attack females and are very, very brutal to them in many circumstances, and I don’t see the same sort of sympathy, or the same sort of impetus to intervene, when it’s males attacking females because we see that as natural. But when it’s a female attacking a male we say, ‘oh, you know, something must be done.’

CURWOOD: Tell me some stories of the behaviors of the bonobo that you’ve observed over the years, things that you think we’d be interested in hearing.

PARISH: Well, I’ve watched bonobos for about 15 years, and some of my favorite stories or anecdotes about them come from days when I spent all day, from dawn to dusk, watching them.

For instance, one day I was watching a female named Louise, and she had a bunch of celery in her hand and I wanted her to turn slightly so I could take some pictures of her because the green celery looked so nice against her black fur. And so I kept saying, ‘Louise, Louise, Louise.’ And she wouldn’t look at me. She kept looking up at the sky, munching on her celery – no matter what I did she wouldn’t look.

So I kept pestering her, I’d say, ‘Louise, Louise!’ And so finally she stood up and ripped the celery in half and threw half to me. So she thought I was begging from her for the celery. And it was so touching because I’d sat out there for many, many days and eaten my lunch and never offered them any, nor had they begged from me. But I was very, very touched that she’d be willing to share her food with me. I felt, you know, that it was a moment of female solidarity. An inter-species moment of female solidarity. So that’s one example.


PARISH: Another example that might seem a little unsavory if you’re not a biologist, but I used to collect fecal samples on all of the females so that I could analyze the samples for estrogen and progesterone. I wanted to look at cycle state and how it correlates with behavior. And so I was allowed to watch the bonobos in their indoor sleeping cages before they were let out into their daytime enclosure, and then the idea was once they were released I could go in and pick up the samples.

So Lana had a sample in her hand that I really needed because I knew she was approaching ovulation, and so I held out my hand and wiggled the ends of my fingers, which is a typical bonobo begging gesture. And she knew I was begging for something but she couldn’t figure out what it was – she was turning around in circles and looking on the floor. And finally she looked at her hand, and looked at me, and looked at her hand, and then she just held it out and I took it from her. And I thought, ‘oh, this is wonderful, I’m going to have to train the bonobos to just give me their samples.’

Well, the very next day I came in and she handed me a sample. And by the end of the week, all four adult females were just giving me these fecal samples, which was very heartening. As a biologist, it made my job a lot easier. [LAUGHS]

And years later I went to the zoo in Stuttgart, where one of the females who had been too young to collect on during the time when I was collecting fecal samples, had been transferred to this zoo from North America to Europe. I’d only collected on her mother, not on her, and she hadn’t seen me in four years. And as soon as she saw me, she went away and got a fecal sample and brought it over to me. [LAUGHS] So she clearly recognized me as that woman who wants to have fecal samples, even though all of that time had passed. And the keepers at the Stuttgart Zoo said she’d never done that with anyone else.

But I think my favorite, when I returned to the San Diego Wild Animal Park after I’d had my own son, who’s named for a bonobo – his name is Kalen, named after the first bonobo I ever met. So I took my son to the Wild Animal Park and Lana was very excited to see me. She was standing up and vocalizing and clapping her hands. She was looking at Kalen, and looking at me, and then she disappeared. And she came back with her new baby that I hadn’t seen yet, and she held him up in front of me, she suspended him by his arms and held him there. And it was very clear she recognized that I had had a baby, and she wanted to let me know that she had also had a baby. It was just a very touching moment.

CURWOOD: Now, there are plans afoot to create a Bonobo Peace Forest for these apes. What would the creation of a Bonobo Peace Forest mean for the bonobo?

PARISH: This is a very exciting project that’s being run by the Bonobo Conservation Initiative, which has spent years putting it into place. And basically it’s going to be a huge forest reserve in the Democratic Republic of Congo that’s managed by the local indigenous people. So they stand to gain a lot in terms of community service projects, and they stand to gain a lot by protecting their own environment.

So it’s a good thing that they’re doing it because there’s probably less than 10,000 bonobos left in the wild today. We don’t exactly know how many because it’s been hard to go out and do census work with all of the civil war going on. But we know that populations of bonobos have been declining very, very rapidly over the last decade, and this Bonobo Peace Forest is going to be a model for conservation in the 21st century.

CURWOOD: What do you think are gonna be some of the biggest challenges in creating a safe and successful refuge for the bonobo?

PARISH: One of the problems in the former Zaire has been that when logging companies came into these areas they would bring workers from other parts of Zaire or other African countries that didn’t have the same ways of life as the local population. So in many local populations where bonobos live there are taboos against eating bonobos, and they believe that bonobos are an ancestor, or that they embody the spirits of their dead relatives, and there are taboos against eating them.
And what logging companies do is they bring people in but they don’t feed them. They arm them and they say, ‘go into the forest and hunt for your own food.’ And so the rates of hunting of bonobos have gone up drastically due to these logging pressures. Having a protected forest like this is going to be really instrumental in making this a workable project.

CURWOOD: Amy Parish teaches at the University of Southern California. Thank you so much for taking this time.

PARISH: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

Related link:
Bonobo Conservation Initiative

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[MUSIC: U2 “Wild Honey” from ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’ (Island – 2003)]

Surf’s Up!

CURWOOD: Now, if you’re having trouble falling asleep, reading might help you relax. But, commentator Bonnie Auslander has another remedy, even though it may well keep you up at night.

AUSLANDER: Every night my family falls asleep to the sound of waves breaking on the shore. When we hear the water gather, lift, slosh and churn, it’s as if our beds are turning into beaches--the baby in his crib beach, the 5-year-old on her big-kid beach, and us, the weary parents, sprawled on the queen-size beach. The grown ups are too tired for even a goodnight kiss yet still desperate for something to swamp the voices in our heads that tell us ‘worry, worry, you've got too much to do, worry, worry, you owe too much money.’

Here's the thing: we live hundreds of miles from the ocean, so what we listen to, to help us get to sleep each night is a CD of ocean surf sounds. Every night, it's just waves crashing over and over, the aural equivalent of snowflakes, each one just a little bit different from the last. This time the water eddies before it rises again, the next time it sounds like it's raining a little. Somehow it all adds up to a snowbank of sound so sweet you can rest your head on it and drift away.

But, this week, the part of me that likes to question everything has begun to wonder about the integrity of the sound. Isn’t it just a little too pure? A little too clear? These are surf sounds from a world that is far removed from the polluted one I live in. Oh yes, the refuge feels good, but am I being lulled into not just rest and restoration but some kind of passive complacency? Maybe our surf CD is nature porn for the ears in the way some nature photography is nature porn for the eyes? You know those photos on calendars and greeting cards where the apples' cheeks are too red and too cheeky, the lawns too vibrantly green. There are no dark spots on those apples, no dog crap on those lawns, of course, and also no smog, no clearcuts and no fishkills. Those photos can send the message that we don’t have to lift a finger to ensure a safe environment for our children.

And, I wondered, is the surf CD having that effect on me? Did the sound engineer edit out the drone of an airplane or the roar of a hi-speed motor boat? And, just what is the sound of an oil slick, hitting the shore?

On the other hand, maybe I'm just making trouble for myself. After all, our ancestors crossed the Savannah and stood open-mouthed at their first glimpse of the sea. And then they built boats to go exploring. Isn't it a human trait to sense the ocean as the beginning of something magical, a place that is both a part of yourself and separate from you, where you can be transformed?

So, maybe the surf CD is just a glorious way to help get us to that place of transformation, back to those very first water sounds any of us ever heard as we sloshed around inside our mothers. Well, tonight, I'm too tired to figure it all out. And, so, I put on the surf and go to sleep. And, in the morning a different set of water sounds, the gurgle and chuckle of the coffeemaker, will wake me up to face a fresh round of contradictions.

CURWOOD: Commentator Bonnie Auslander lives, and sleeps at her home in Bethesda Maryland.

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[MUSIC: Brian Eno “Another Green World” from ‘Another Green World’ (Virgin - 2004)]

CURWOOD: Just ahead, writer Bill McKibben goes shopping and finds that it can be a long, but rewarding journey. You’re listening to Living On Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and: Kashi, whose “Day of Change” tour features yoga lessons, natural food cooking demos, and Kashi cereals, crackers and granola bars. Details at Kashi dot com; The Kresge Foundation, investing in nonprofits to help them catalyze growth, connect to stakeholders, and challenge greater support. On the web at Kresge dot org; and, The Kellogg Foundation, helping people help themselves by investing in individuals, their families, and their communities. On the web at wkkf dot org. This is NPR, National Public Radio.

[MUSIC: Roger Eno “Winter Music” from ‘Compounds & Elements’ (All Saints Music – 2006)]

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, and coming up: the tomato that bought a house. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Emily Torgrimson.


Emerging Science Note/Mosquito Fish

TORGRIMSON: A day in the life of a guppy: cruise ‘round the plastic castle, swim up to the surface for pellets, check out the bejeweled mermaid on the far side of the tank, and now, help fight a dengue epidemic in India.

In recent weeks, dengue fever has killed dozens of people and affected hundreds in West Bengal, India. Dengue is a mosquito-born disease that causes fever, nausea, headaches, and, if it is not treated, death. But health officials in West Bengal have released thousands of guppies into waters where mosquitoes breed.

Mosquitoes there are proving resistant to many pesticides, so officials are relying on the help of guppies and gambusia - a fish commonly known as “the mosquitofish” because of its ability to eat its weight in mosquito larvae a day. And both fish species can survive where water quality is poor, like stagnant ponds or shallow bodies of water.

Critics of the method say guppies and gambusia often grow to outnumber native species of fish – they attack other fish by nipping at their fins, eyes, and preying on their eggs. There’s no indication yet of the immediate effect the fish are having on the dengue epidemic, or other mosquito-born illnesses, like encephalitis and malaria.

That's this week's Note on Emerging Science. I'm Emily Torgrimson.

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Home Grown

CURWOOD: Come summer they sprout up each week here in the Northeast. In city parking lots and along back roads, they are the farmer’s markets. And there you can find green thumb growers showing off the fruits of their labors, local produce grown with care and pride. It’s a season New Englander’s cherish, especially Bill McKibben.

McKIBBEN: The apples in my market annoy me. They’re from China and New Zealand and Washington state, and I live in Vermont’s Champlain Valley, one of the world’s great apple-growing regions. So, what an annoying waste of energy to fly these Red Delicious in from halfway around the planet. And what a waste of taste—these things have been bred for just one purpose-- endurance. Mostly, though, they’re annoying because they don’t come with connections, with stories. They’ve been grown on ten thousand-acre plantations with the latest industrial methods and the highest possible efficiency. They’re cheap, I give you that. But they’re so dull.


McKIBBEN: The roar you hear is a cider press. It belongs to my neighbor, Bill Suhr. His fifty-acre orchard produced a million pounds of apples last year, so he’s not a backyard hobbyist.

SUHR: This time of year we’re putting six varieties in: the Macintosh, Empire, Cortland, Macoun, Northern Spy, and Jonagold.

McKIBBEN: I drank a lot of Bill Suhr’s cider this past winter because I’d asked the editors at Gourmet magazine if I could perform an experiment: could I make it through the winter feeding myself entirely on the food of this northern New England valley where I live. Up until 75 years ago or so, everyone who lived here obviously ate close to home—an orange or a banana was a Christmas-time treat.

And that’s still how most people on the planet eat. But I knew that most of the infrastructure that once made that possible was now missing. Our food system operates on the principle that it’s always summer somewhere, so it’s forgotten how to get through winter. How many houses have a root cellar? Not mine. If I was going to make it, I would need to make connections with my neighbors. Ben Gleason, for instance.

GLEASON: Well, let’s see, last year I went through I believe, 32 tons of wheat. Spring and summer were just wonderful and I thought, “Oh my gosh, we’re going to have a normal year in Vermont,” but then it started raining and it just go so wet that I had problems in harvesting. Almost everybody did.

McKIBBEN: Ben Gleason grows wheat on his farm in the nearby town of Bridport, Vermont. I’d always imagined wheat just came from the Midwest, and indeed, that’s where it can be grown most cheaply. But Ben’s been growing it for a quarter century here, hard red winter wheat which he grinds himself in a little shed next to his barn and then sells at the local co-op for 59 cents a pound, not much more than the stuff from the giant mills.


GLEASON: This is the bread flour.

McKIBBEN: Ecologically it makes a lot of sense: instead of traveling 1,500 miles like the average bite of American food, it only needed to cover ten miles before it reached my kitchen. And since it’s easily available, it’s starting to help other local businesses turn more local. The local pizzeria makes its dough with it, and the local bagel shop. And some of it—some of it goes to our local brewery, Otter Creek, owned by Morgan Wolaver

WOLAVER: I would love nothing more than to be able to survive financially in producing beer for the state of Vermont. Local beers are more fresh.

McKIBBEN: By Christmas-time, I’d settled into my routine. Local oats for breakfast, or pancakes. Maple syrup is the quintessential Vermont crop. Cheese sandwich for lunch—the local cheese factory is right next to the brewery. And for dinner, some potatoes, some carrots, some squash, some beets, and some creature—something that had been baa-ing or moo-ing or snorting a few weeks before, busy converting the grass of this valley into protein.


McKIBBEN: Some of my favorite protein came from Essex Farm, on the New York side of Lake Champlain. Mark Gunther and his wife, Kristin Kimball, opened this enterprise two years ago. You sign up to be a member and then you appear every Friday afternoon and Mark loads up your car with food.

GUNTHER: We have carrots, cabbage, beets, celery root, turnips, leeks, onions, pumpkins, butternut and buttercup squash, parsley, and kale all harvested fresh today. I think that’s about the vegetable department.

McKIBBEN: But the vegetable department is only the beginning. They’ve got a small beef herd, so there are always steaks and hamburger in the freezer. The pigs produce bacon and ham. The chickens and the turkeys taste good, too.


McKIBBEN: They raise bees, they grow their own wheat. Except for dental floss, you’d never need to set foot in a store again.


McKIBBEN: Today, Mark is making cheeseburgers for lunch.

GUNTHER: This is beef from the bull that we ate for our wedding, and this is hamburger from him. We called him Charlie. So it’s Charlie, with a little bit of Rea and Delia and Melissa in the cheese.

McKIBBEN: Mark Gunther is even more interested in local than I am. And yet there’s nothing particularly grim or Luddite about his life. Just the opposite.

GUNTHER: There’s nothing inherent about modern ways that I don’t support. I’m trying to find out ways to increase the quality of my life, and I think, by extension, the lives of those around me.

McKIBBEN: In fact, Mark is at least as much an innovator as a throwback. When his wife, Kristin, got tired of churning butter by hand every week, he came up with a solution:


GUNTHER: I realized that someone had given us a fold-out bed, and that, probably, if I opened that up and put the milk can on it and bounced it, that I could be able to make butter quickly. And so now my weekly ritual has been every Tuesday or Wednesday night to turn on some Latino rhythms that I feel like listening to and I kind of do a kind of modified jumping dance with my fifty pounds of stainless steel and cream. Usually within about 600-700 bounces I open it up and find 10-12 pounds of butter ready to be rinsed and worked.


McKIBBEN: And his butter tastes great, too; maybe even better because I know its story. I’m not going to claim that every day of this experiment was pure gustatory bliss. There were moments when I sympathized with my daughter, Sophie.

McKIBBEN: Can you tell the difference between a parsnip and a turnip?

SOPHIE: No, I don’t want to. They’re disgusting.

McKIBBEN: When spring came, I was happy to eat the odd banana and drink the occasional pint of Guinness Stout. But I don’t think I’m ever going back to eating the way I used to. I could give you a lot of good reasons—there’s a British study, for instance, that just came out proving that eating local helped the environment twice as much even as eating organic. But all that’s just an excuse. I’m hooked on the connections to the place I live. I spent the winter eating with my mind as well as my tongue, consuming connections along with my calories. It was the best dining I've ever done. I'm not going back to orange juice. I'm sticking with cider.

CURWOOD: Bill McKibben is the author of "Wandering Home: A Long Walk Across America’s Most Hopeful Landscape, Vermont’s Champlain Valley and New York’s Adirondacks." His story on local food was produced by Jay Allison, Chelsea Merz, and Viki Merrick. Special thanks to the public radio website, Transom-Dot-Org, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Related links:
- Bill McKibben’s webpage
- “Wandering Home: A Long Walk Across America's Most Hopeful Landscape, Vermont's Champlain Valley and New York's Adirondacks."

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[MUSIC: John Fahey “Poor Boy Long Ways From Home” from ‘Best Of John Fahey: 1959-1977’ (Takoma - 2002)]

Mortgage Lifter Tomatoes

Photo courtesy of Jeff McCormack

CURWOOD: Now when it comes to food can anything be more worthy of a boast than a delectable tomato, ripening on the vine right in your own backyard? Especially those heirloom varieties, the ones with odd shapes, colors and names to match. There are the Tommy Toes, tiny as grapes, Brandywines, deep red as a glass of cabernet, and Banana Legs, yellow and yummy. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young was curious about one of his favorites, a tomato with an especially peculiar name, and he discovered a story behind it as colorful as the fruit itself.

YOUNG: Where I grew up in West Virginia, old timers called them “Mortgage Lifters.” They’re tasty without being acidic, and the flattened, pinkish fruits get big. Really big—I’m talkin’ a pound or two apiece. The best of them carried a longer name: “Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter Tomato.” I often wondered about that name. So did Jeff McCormack.

YOUNG: McCormack runs a seed catalog company from his home in Charlottesvile, Virginia. He specializes in rare lines of heirloom plants and seeds passed down through families and friends.

McCORMACK: But, you know, when it’s being passed down in a family for 200 years there must be something good about it.

YOUNG: In the mid 80s, McCormack got his hands on some tomato seeds and a heck of a story. It came in the form of a scratchy old tape recording of a conversation between Ed Martin of Virginia, and his grandfather, the originator of the Mortgage Lifter Tomato.

MARTIN: I am sitting at 860 Lee St talking to my grandfather MC Byles and he’d get mad if anybody said it is Marshall Cletis Byles.

YOUNG: Marshall Cletis Byles preferred to go by MC or just Charlie. The tape is tough to hear—cars, trains and, at one point, an ice cream truck interfere. But it rewards the careful listener. Martin tries to keep his grandad on topic—he wants to know the origin of the Mortgage Lifter Tomato.

MARTIN: That’s a heck of a tomato. Look, didn’t you tell me there were five tomatoes that made that thing?

M.C. "Radiator Charlie" Byles shows off the fruits of his labor, the Mortgage Lifter tomato, for a Virginia newspaper in the mid-1960s. (Photo courtesy of Jeff McCormack)

YOUNG: Byles talks about the tomato all right, but not right away. He wanders in his recollection, as 85-year-olds are wont to do. He talks about cars he’s owned, jobs he’s worked, places he’s lived—and what emerges is the story of a truly remarkable life. The grandson asks how Charlie got started with gardening. Byles tells him it was when his mother sent him to work in the cotton fields of North Carolina. He was four years old.

BYLES: Mother said “come out from under there.” I said “what do you want?” She said, “you’re going to work.” “I’m too little to work.” “No, you are not.” I had to go out there and start pickin’ cotton.

YOUNG: As a young man in the National Guard, Byles took up wrestling and got so good he went on a wrestling tour of towns in Appalachia where it’s called “wrasslin.’ The pay was a dollar for every minute he lasted in the ring.

BYLES: What you did, if he didn’t throw you in 10 minutes, you’d get a dollar a minute. I never lost, but very few times.

YOUNG: Byles learned to pilot small planes and flew airmail routes. He loved fixing planes and inventing things. He once came up with a new kind of garden tiller, but didn’t think to get a patent. He found business success as an auto mechanic in the rugged hills of Logan, West Virginia, where heavy coal and timber trucks constantly blew out radiators grinding up the steep grades.

McCORMACK: And I think that’s where he acquired his name “Radiator Charlie.”

YOUNG: That’s seed saver Jeff McCormack.

McCORMACK: Incidentally, the shop was located at the foot of a large mountain where the trucks had to roll back down the mountain to his shop after the radiator blew.

YOUNG: Location, location, location. He sounds like the classic American tinkerer.

McCORMACK: Exactly. And the beauty of it is that he did this all without formal education.

BYLES: Well, I’ve always had a mind of doing things that nobody else couldn’t do. I never been to school a day in my life but anything I wanted to do, I done it.

YOUNG: Sometime in the early 40s, Radiator Charlie Byles wanted to build a better tomato. You remember this is a story about a tomato, right? Well, this is how he did it.

BYLES: What I did I took ten plants and put them in a circle and put one in the center.

YOUNG: McCormack has studied this part of the tape carefully and says Byles invented an unorthodox but elegant system.

McCORMACK: Well, he started with four varieties of tomatoes and he placed a tomato called German Johnson in the center of a ring of 10 tomatoes. All these tomatoes were the largest seeds he could find in the country at the time. So, he would go around to the other tomatoes, collect pollen in the baby’s ear syringe, then squirt it on the flowers of the German Johnson. Then he would save seed. After seven years, he felt he had a stable tomato with all qualities he was looking for, and once he was satisfied with that he never worked with any other tomato plants, did any other plant breeding. But he really ran with it after he developed it.

YOUNG: Ran all the way to the bank. Turns out Radiator Charlie Byles had quite a knack for marketing, and sold tomato seedlings for a buck apiece—a lot of money for a little plant in those days. He sold enough of them to pay off the mortgage on his house.

BYLES: I didn’t pay but six thousand dollars for my home, and paid most of it off with tomato plants.

YOUNG: So, there you have it: Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter Tomato. McCormack says the story is more than just a good yarn. When he put it in the seed catalog it attracted curious gardeners who grew the tomato, saved the seed, and, perhaps unwittingly, helped keep the strain alive – a small victory for preserving genetic diversity at a time when most agriculture is heading toward a homogenized industrial scale. And McCormack finds something else of value in these seed stories, something a little harder to pin down.

McCORMACK: What I’m trying to do is also sort of save the soul behind these seeds, the thin line that extends from one generation to another. And each, the people are connected with the seeds, culture and agriculture are inexorably intertwined. They’re like two sides of the same coin.

YOUNG: MC "Radiator Charlie" Byles died at the ripe old age of 97. At the time of his talk with his grandson, he had already outlived many of his friends and family. He wondered aloud why he had lived so long.

BYLES: The Lord left me here all these years for some purpose. I don’t know what it is.

MARTIN: Maybe it was that tomato. (LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: Maybe it was that tomato. And maybe that’s not so bad. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Charlottesville, VA.

[MUSIC: Guy Clark “Home Grown Tomato” from ‘Keepers’ (Sugar Hill Records – 1997]

GELLERMAN: To see pictures of Radiator Charlie and his Mortgage Lifter Tomato and to learn more about heirloom seeds visit our web site Living on Earth dot org. That's Living on Earth dot o-r-g.

[MUSIC: Guy Clark “Home Grown Tomato” from ‘Keepers’ (Sugar Hill Records – 1997]

When I die don't bury me
In a box in a cold dark cemetery
Out in the garden would be much better
Where I could be pushin' up home grown tomatoes
Home grown tomatoes, home grown tomatoes
What'd life be without home grown tomatoes
There's only two things that money can't buy
That's true love and home grown tomatoes.

CURWOOD: To see pictures of Radiator Charlie and his Mortgage Lifter Tomato and to learn more about heirloom seeds visit our web site Living on Earth dot org. That's Living on Earth dot o-r-g.

Related links:
- Seed Savers Exchange
- Southern Exposure Seed Exchange – Mortage Lifter seeds page

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CURWOOD: We leave you this week in Bill McKibben’s backyard. Andrea Lockwood recorded the cascading waters found at the Gorge at Blue Ledge, high in the Adirondack Mountains as part of her work called: A Sound Map of the Hudson River.


CURWOOD: Living On Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Ashley Ahearn, Chris Ballman, Eileen Bolinsky, Jennifer Chu, Bruce Gellerman, and Ingrid Lobet. With help from Christopher Bollick, Kelly Cronin, and James Curwood. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Allison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us and hear us any time at LOE dot org. I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER1: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; Kashi, whose “Day of Change” tour features yoga lessons, natural food cooking demos, and an array of Kashi products. Details at Kashi dot com. Stonyfield Farm. Organic yogurt, smoothies and milk. Ten percent of profits are donated to efforts that help protect and restore the earth. Details at Stonyfield dot com.

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