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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

August 29, 1997

Air Date: August 29, 1997

SEGMENTS

FREEING WILLY / Terry FitzPatrick

Keiko, the killer whale which starred in the movie "Free Willy", may have his Hollywood dream come true. Friends of Keiko have raised millions of dollars to move him to a special aquarium where his handlers are preparing him to return to the wild. But as Terry FitzPatrick reports, the effort is raising some serious scientific and ethical questions. (08:55)

NUCLEAR POETRY / Debra Greger

Debra Greger, a poet raised in the atomic energy boom town of Hanford, Washington, reads from her work and talks with Steve about growing up in the shadow of the atom. (11:45)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Facts about... the Boston M-T-A public transportation system. (01:15)

TRAIN WHISTLES BLARE / Patrick Cox

For people who live near train tracks, whistling trains are a jarring disruption, and some have put forward laws to minimize these sound alarms through federal legislation. Patrick Cox reports on the governments reaction to the pending noise reduction proposals. (06:50)

AFRICAN-AMERICAN FARMERS: WORKING THE PLOUGH

In 1910, roughly 15 million acres of land were owned by African-American farmers in the U.S. That has declined to less than 4 million acres. It has been predicted that by the year 2005 black farmers in this country will have disappeared. Steve Curwood travelled with producer John Rudolph to southern Arkansas for a look at some African-American farmers who are striving to hold on to the land. (18:42)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Lisa Mullins
REPORTERS: Jyl Hoyt, Stephanie O'Neill, Kelly Griffin, Terry FitzPatrick,
Patrick Cox, Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Debra Greger

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
The whale Keiko starred in the Free Willy movies. Now his handlers are planning to release him back into the wild.

HUGHES: We really need to pay attention to what we take from the world and what we put back. And we have an opportunity to put something back here, and I think it's worth the effort to find out if we can do that successfully.

CURWOOD: But some say Keiko can't survive on his own and the effort to release him is just serving to hype movie tickets. Also, we meet a poet who grew up near the atom bomb factory in Hanford, Washington.

GREGER: The cheerleaders had a little 4-foot bomb painted in the school colors, which they would take out at halftime and prance around. But we thought nothing of it. Except that we were a company town and that was the product.

CURWOOD: We'll have those stories and more this week on Living on Earth,
right after this news.

Environmental News

MULLINS: From Living on Earth, I'm Lisa Mullins. Federal officials still haven't found a way to buy out a Canadian company that wants to mine gold near Yellowstone National Park. From member station KBSU in Boise, Idaho, Jyl Hoyt reports.

HOYT: The Crown Butte Mines Company says it's tired of waiting for the US government to come up with the $65 million President Clinton promised it a year ago, in exchange for giving up development opportunities at the New World Gold Mine north of Yellowstone National Park. First, Federal officials had hoped to swap military bases for the mining leases. But many of the bases have toxic remains or are earmarked for local economic development. Officials then proposed buying the leases with land and water conservation funds. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved that proposal, but the House of Representatives didn't, despite leader Newt Gingrich's support. Environmentalists hope a conference committee will find a compromise before the October first budget deadline. Meanwhile, Crown Butte has asked Montana to issue water quality permits as a first step toward mining. For Living on Earth, I'm Jyl Hoyt in Boise, Idaho.

MULLINS: In Georgia, environmental groups are hailing what they call a landmark settlement in the fight for cleaner water. Since the 1970s the Federal EPA and the state have failed to apply certain pollution requirements of the Clean Water Act to the Chattahoochie River. The settlement gives Georgia and the EPA 18 months to monitor pollution and set maximum allowable levels for the state's major river basins. Similar cases are pending in 23 other states.

A plan to build one of the world's largest landfills next to a national park has won initial approval in Southern California. Stephanie O'Neill has more.

O'NEILL: Riverside County officials voted in favor of the proposed 2,000-acre landfill in California's Mojave Desert. The site, called the Eagle Mountain Landfill, would sit adjacent to the Joshua Tree National Park. Under the proposal, the landfill would receive up to 10,000 tons of garbage from Southern California each day for at least 50 years. In exchange the landfill developer will pay the national park 10 cents for each ton of trash it accepts, or about $365,000 a year, money that could be use to enhance the park or to find ways to better protect its wildlife. But the plan has been widely criticized by environmentalists,who fear the landfill will pollute the air and groundwater in the national park and the surrounding wilderness, and that it may disturb the endangered desert tortoise and the threatened bighorn sheep populations. The landfill plan now faces several more governmental hurdles, including final approval in the San Diego Superior Court. Three years ago a similar landfill plan was rejected by the court for failure to address the dump's impact on the overall desert environment. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Los Angeles.

MULLINS: New York City residents can finally stop putting the garbage out with the trash. The city council voted last week to allow the use of garbage disposals for the first time since 1970, when sewage concerns forced a ban. Until now, only areas of the city with separate systems for waste and drainage could use disposals, but a recent study revealed that the city's current sewage system could easily handle the increased load. Opponents say disposal use is underestimated and warned the sewage plants and the Hudson River could be adversely affected.

More than 3,000 Colorado homeowners, a half-dozen major electric customers, and the governor have agreed to pay premium prices for electricity generated by the wind. The state's electric company says that a wind farm will be running by January. Kelly Griffin has this report from Denver.

GRIFFIN: For 2 years Public Service Company has been enlisting green-minded customers to pledge 35% over and above their regular electric bill to support a wind farm called Wind Source. That amounts to about $2.50 a month more for the average home. For Governor Roy Roemer's mansion, Wind Source adds $250 to the $1,000 monthly bill. The surcharge will help fund the construction of 13 wind turbines, which eventually will provide electricity for 10,000 homes. Coal-fired plants will still provide 97% of the utility's electricity, and large users that have signed up for Wind Source, such as IBM, Coors Brewing Company, and cities of Denver and Boulder, will get just a small fraction of their power from the wind farm. But company officials and Governor Roemer say it's a start. Renewable energy advocates agree the program is a step in the right direction, but they've asked the state's Public Utilities Commission to require the electric company to obtain 10% of its power from renewable energy, even if customers don't agree to pay a premium. For Living on Earth, I'm Kelly Griffin in Denver.

MULLINS: Finally, there's a new job in the Netherlands: muskrat trapping. The government has hired 500 people to catch the rodents, which burrow tunnels and weaken dikes that protect two thirds of the country from being flooded. A single muskrat can displace 13 wheelbarrows of sand each year. Widespread flooding in 1995 was blamed in part on the animals' tireless efforts.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Lisa Mullins.

Back to top

 

FREEING WILLY

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood with an encore edition of Living on Earth, and...

(An orca whale calls)

CURWOOD: That is Keiko, star of Hollywood's Free Willy movies, which chronicle the fictional adventures of a killer whale who escapes captivity. These days Keiko is making history as the world's first orca whale to be removed from a theme park for possible release into the wild. His celebrity status has attracted millions in donations for a special rehabilitation aquarium, where his health has improved dramatically. Keiko's handlers are striving to make the Free Willy dream come true. But his potential release is raising some serious scientific and ethical questions. Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick explains.

(A man claps hands, says, "Right here, big guy." A blow hole spouts. Man: "Good morning.")

FITZ PATRICK: It's 10:30 AM and zookeeper Nolan Harvey is preparing Keiko for the first of 5 physical workouts of the day. With hand signals and a dog whistle, Mr. Harvey tells Keiko to nudge his 9,000 pound body to the edge of the pool.

(Keiko gurgles, spouts)

HARVEY: Hold it, hold it. Good boy!

(Keiko whistles, spouts)

HARVEY: I've just asked him to roll over on his back, and then once he gets in position I'm going to ask him to do a fast lap around the pool underwater. Go!

(A whistle and a splash)

FITZPATRICK: As the command comes, Keiko races away. When his lap is complete, he shoots into the air.

(Loud splash)

FITZPATRICK: The maneuvers look like a typical marine park show, but with an important difference. There's no set routine. Sometimes Keiko must perform frustrating or challenging tasks. Other times, Mr. Harvey asks Keiko to surprise him by doing any trick he likes.

HARVEY: That's solving the problem, that's creativity, and that's what killer whales need to survive in the wild. That's what makes them such an efficient predator and at the top of the food chain.

(Whistles, other sounds)

FITZPATRICK: Keiko's conditioning here at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport seems to be working. When he first arrived a year ago, Keiko could barely hold his breath underwater for 3 minutes. Now it's 13 minutes, about right for a healthy killer whale.

(Keiko spouts)

FITZPATRICK: Keiko has also gained 1,000 pounds and strengthened his muscles.

(More spouting)

FITZPATRICK: Keiko's health is improving, but there's a growing debate over the wisdom of actually releasing him. It's a debate about his chances of surviving in the wild, and the power of Hollywood movies to create unrealistic expectations.

(Dramatic music and splashing, underwater sounds)

FITZPATRICK: Keiko became famous by starring in the 1993 film Free Willy, the story of a captive whale who refuses to perform. Willy is about to be killed by his owners when a young boy helps him escape.

(Splashing. Boy: "Come on Willy, I know you can do it, boy! I know you can jump this wall! Come on, I believe in you, Willy! You can do it! You can be free!" Willy spouts. "Come on! You can jump it!" Dramatic music and splashing continues.)

FITZPATRICK: Ironically, after the movie's release an expose uncovered that Keiko himself was suffering under poor conditions at a Mexico theme park. The embarrassing revelations prompted the movie's producers, along with several corporations and animal welfare groups, to take action. They raised more than $7 million to build Keiko a better home in the US, and see if the Hollywood fantasy of releasing a captive whale could eventually come true.

(Music and whale sounds from the movie continue)

FITZPATRICK: The fundraising expanded with a Free Willy sequel in 1995, and will continue with a third Willy film this summer. The movies vastly oversimplify the challenge of releasing a captive marine mammal. They don't mention that many attempts to release dolphins have ended in disaster, and that no one has ever tried to release a killer whale. Still, the head of the Keiko Project, Beverly Hughes, says people are willing to donate because the effort touches deep emotions.

HUGHES: I really think this project is a lot about hope. We hope that we really learn how to return a captive animal to the wild. We really need to pay attention to what we take from the world and what we put back. And we have an opportunity to put something back here, and I think it's worth the effort to find out if we can do that successfully.

FITZPATRICK: Many marine biologists, however, feel the plan is hopeless. Wild whales survive by living in groups known as pods. And scientists say Keiko would face an impossible challenge of trying to fit into this complex social network, because he spent more than a decade alone in captivity. Some biologists also suspect the Keiko Project is motivated more by marketing than by science. Twindy Agardi is with the World Wildlife Fund.

AGARDI: Certainly the interests of the (laughs) movie producers are to make more money, and so they will continue to publicize the plight of this animal and get people to give money and to, you know, create all kinds of concern for this animal, in part because that's a great marketing strategy. It raises a lot of interest in the sequels. (Laughs)

FITZPATRICK: Killer whales are not an endangered species, and Dr. Agardi feels the millions raised for Keiko could be better spent helping other animals that are on the brink of extinction.

(Keiko whistles. Man: "Okay! Good!")

FITZPATRICK: Keiko's handlers deny their work is motivated by Hollywood and insist he'll never be released unless scientists are convinced he has a good chance of survival. The project has begun to enlist the help of researchers from some of the nation's top oceanographic institutions. They'll study if Keiko can use his underwater sonar skills to find fish, and if he's fit enough to swim 100 miles a day in search of food. Zookeeper Nolan Harvey says it's tests like these that will decide Keiko's future.

HARVEY: We're trying to do what's best for him, not what makes us feel good as human beings. If that's the reason that we're rehabilitating him, and if we turn him loose because it makes us feel good, that's the wrong reason; we shouldn't even be doing this.

FITZPATRICK: Mr. Harvey says there's no pressure to release Keiko. He'll always have a home at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, where he's become a major attraction and generates enough revenue to pay for his upkeep.

HARVEY: Come on!

(Keiko squeals)

HARVEY: You're getting tired! I see that!

FITZPATRICK: During his poolside sessions, Mr. Harvey has learned Keiko is a long way from becoming a viable wild whale. For years he's been fed by hand, and it's uncertain if he'll ever learn to hunt. For example, Keiko was terrified when keepers added squid to his diet, and didn't know what to do when confronted by live baby salmon in his tank.

(Scraping and brushing sounds)

FITZPATRICK: Keiko is also battling serious medical problems, including bad teeth and gums which must be brushed 4 times a week. And he's infected with a herpes-like virus.

(Keiko squeals. Man: "Oh, stop it.")

FITZPATRICK: Even if Keiko overcomes these problems, his fate may ultimately hinge on the harsh realities of commercial fishing in the North Atlantic, where Keiko was born and his handlers hope to release him. International fishing fleets are known to kill nuisance whales that interfere with their nets. This could affect Keiko's chances of ever returning home, because the last thing anyone wants, either his handlers or the governments that must approve his relocation, is a movie star whale winding up at the end of a harpoon.

(Dramatic movie music, spouting and splashes)

FITZ PATRICK: For Living on Earth, this is Terry FitzPatrick reporting.

Back to top

(Movie music and splashing continue, up and under)

CURWOOD: Growing up with a dad who makes nuclear bombs for a living, and the poetry those memories inspire, is just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

NUCLEAR POETRY

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
Nuclear energy was once seen as the hope of humanity's future. In the 1950s the atom promised an endless supply of power and possibly world peace. Perhaps nowhere was that promise so bright as in the boom towns built around the United States nuclear program: places like Los Alamos, New Mexico, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Hanford in Washington State. Debra Greger is a poet who grew up next door to Hanford. She attended Catholic schools there while her father worked at the nuclear processing plant. Her latest collection of poetry is called Desert Fathers, Uranium Daughters, and it reflects the experiences of her youth.

GREGER: Hanford is the name of the plant and is the name of the ghost town that the plant is named for. Richland was the town where most of the workers and their families lived. It was a small town at the edge of the world, the last frontier town in a way, I think of it.

CURWOOD: A fun place, an easy place to live?

GREGER: Oh, exceedingly. A very safe place, too; you didn't have to lock your car. You didn't have to lock your house. You didn't even really have to lock your bike. And so innocent now; I mean part of that was the temper of the times, part of that was the secrecy perhaps. Part of that was childhood. I was a Bomber.

CURWOOD: A Bomber?

GREGER: Yes, the high school team was the Richland Bombers. The cheerleaders had a little 4-foot bomb painted in the school colors, which they would take out at halftime and prance around. The high school seal has the mushroom cloud going up the middle of it, so --

CURWOOD: A mushroom cloud?

GREGER: The high school ring has the mushroom cloud on it. What does your high school ring have on it? (Laughs) I mean, I'm going to win this contest; I have never lost this contest.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) I think there's a little lamp --

GREGER: Mere racism just doesn't compete with total annihilation. But we thought nothing of it, except that we were a company town and that was the product.

CURWOOD: Could you read for us the poem The Desert Father?

GREGER: Yes. This is called The Desert Fathers and has as a subtitle The Flagpole Sitter. That was a big moment in a small town in the 50s, and I hope the poem explains that.

Forty days and forty nights.
Down at the used car lot at the edge of town
A man had vowed to sit on top of a flagpole
Renouncing fleshly pleasures in the name of sales.
And from the radio stations
There came men in search of wisdom
To pass on to their followers.
A hermit chained to his pillar in the desert.
The salesman broke his silence then.
But who remembers what he said?
He was as a field mouse clinging to a reed shaken in the wind.
He missed his Elvis.
The nuns said Elvis moved like sin,
Like Khruschev
Who pounded on the table with his shoe.
A man who sat in quiet, the old desert fathers said,
And heard the reeds in the wind
Had not the same quiet in his heart.
Down to earth, the customers came by twos
To test the great finned arcs lined up.
Noah the owner breathed on a rear view mirror,
Then rubbed out the desert with his sleeve.
And if a pillar of cloud rose out there, invisible, from the reactor
And drifted overhead,
It was top secret, or accident, or both.
We didn't need a seer to tell us that.
We wouldn't be told.
Across the road, cow and steer would nuzzle the barbed wire,
Chewing their contaminated cud,
Eyeing the river swollen in spring flood.

CURWOOD: In another poem you write, "The air was thick with isotopes we knew nothing about." Were you aware of the secrecy that surrounded what your dad worked on, or did you just kind of take it for granted?

GREGER: Well, I'm not sure. I mean, I knew where he worked. I knew he wore a badge. I realize now that that badge had a dosimeter on it. His first position at the plant I now realize was radiation monitor entry level. What I knew then was that once a month he came home from work with a black case which had 2 glass bottles in it, and those were to be filled up with urine, and then the case was left on the front porch, and again you thought nothing of this because everybody else's dad was doing it, too. I don't know when all the pieces came together. Until I left the state in 1972 to go to graduate school, I didn't know that anybody opposed nuclear power. In those days the whole state was so dependent on defense contracts, and of course the Vietnam War was a very prosperous time, as was the Cold War.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering, when you discovered that your father had been working on these weapons of mass destruction, how did that change your view of him or of the world?

GREGER: Well, I I don't know how exactly to answer that. He and I don't sit down and discuss it except from an historical standpoint. He remains proud of what he did, I think.

CURWOOD: Do you?

GREGER: Well, I'm I don't know. If he hadn't been opposed to the Vietnam War I might feel differently, and it's interesting to think about men in his line of work who were able to separate those things.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering if you could read for us now the poem The Age of Reason.

GREGER: (Reads) Oh, eternity, oh Sunday afternoon.
Just as the nuns had said, it stretched forth
Even more endless than I could imagine.
I was seven. The age of reason, Aquinas said,
Who reasoned how many angels exactly
Could crowd on the head of a pin.
In a dress unreasonably white
I made my first Communion.
The host tasting neither of body nor bread, just library paste,
Stuck to the roof of the mouth.
Old enough to know better, my father said,
But still that eternal Sunday supper
I played with my food.
I even sat still, watching the fat on the platter congeal
Like a miracle.
The last of the Sunday beef tongue lolled
Silenced by the knife's sharp word.
Outside a leaf took its time to fall, bad angel,
Down through the well-scrubbed floor of heaven,
Down to the dirty unreasonable desert.
Out there somewhere, uranium broke down
Into its no more stable daughters.
Oh half-life, Oh eternity.
Sometimes we had to crouch under our desks at school
As if to pray even harder,
But we would be saved,
If only from the Russians.
And did you drink the milk as a child, the doctor will ask,
The voice of reason.
Milk from the dairy downwind.

CURWOOD: So much of the power of your poetry comes when you equate the mysteries of religion and the mysteries of these nuclear programs. How did all that secrecy feel to you when you were a child?

GREGER: Well, on the one hand it was a given, and on the other hand it was pretty tantalizing.

CURWOOD: Tantalizing?

GREGER: The assumption of a child is that there are things grown ups don't know (laughs) isn't Freud great? There are things grown ups know that children aren't grown up enough to know, and religion trades on this and, in a way, Hanford traded on it as well.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering if you could read for us now the poem Ship Burial.

GREGER: Oh, right, yes. Yes. Well, that is Hanford's modern-day function, isn't it?

CURWOOD: Uh huh.

GREGER: From the very beginning it was a nuclear waste dump, and among the other things buried out there are reactor cores from nuclear submarines, and they are barged up the Columbia River and then trucked out into the desert, and these tombs are built out there. So this poem Ship Burial begins with a quote from Beowulf: "Take these treasures, Earth, now that no one living can enjoy them."

On great stone wings
A hawk hovered in the great dusty hull of the sky.
Below in the shade of a lowly sagebrush
A rabbit dug its own grave.
An official sang out from time to time, sharply, almost dreamily
To a bulldozer pushing back the earth, back where it came from,
As if to plunge a great ship deeper into the dirt.
That the dead might make the voyage from this world to the next more
easily,
The ship bore bread and candles,
Irradiated fuel rods,
The half-lives of mother and daughter isotopes,
Stout leather shoes.
Like gold leaf the dust scattered.
Over the ship set adrift,
The wind hurried the waves of sand,
The hill dead ahead.
Coffee was poured from its flask,
The dregs flung upon the ground.
So in the desert they buried the heart of the nuclear submarine.

CURWOOD: What do you feel like today when you go back to Hanford?

GREGER: As if I don't belong there any more. There's less and less trace in town of it being an atomic town, though the uptown movie theater still does have a neon atom spinning at the top of its sign. But (sighs) it's odd: deeply familiar and deeply foreign is how it seems at this point.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us today.

GREGER: Well, thank you so much.

CURWOOD: Poet Debra Greger teaches at the University of Florida. Her latest collection is called Desert Fathers, Uranium Daughters.

Back to top

(Music up and under: bluegrass. A man sings: "Do you fear this man's invention that they call atomic power? Are we all in great confusion, do we know the time or hour? When a terrible explosion may rain down upon our land, leaving horrible destruction blotting out the works of man. Are you ready for the great atomic power? Will you rise and meet your savior in the air? Will you shout or will you cry when they're firing from on high? Are you ready for the great atomic power?)

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

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: The sound of a train whistle may signal romance for some folks. But for others it means a sleepless night. They want the noise banned but the Federal Government says safety comes first. That's just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

SECOND HALF HOUR

(Theme music up and under)

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

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: This week, America's first subway celebrates its 100th anniversary. The underground trolley left Boston's Park Street station on September first, 1897. The final destination: Boylston station only a few blocks away. But the journey signaled the beginning of a new era in transportation. Americans will take more than 2 billion trips on 15 different subway systems this year. A recent study by the Campaign for Efficient Passenger Transportation shows that even though public transit accounts for less than 2% of total trips taken, it keeps over 5 million cars off the road each year. Without public transit, the nation would have to add 27,000 miles of road and deal with enough traffic to fill a 9-lane highway bumper to bumper from New York to Los Angeles. The same study also found that when considering health, safety, and environmental costs, the yearly savings to society from the use of public transit is near $300 billion. And taking the subway or bus has other benefits as well. One recent study found that congestion causes drivers to triple the amount of unkind thoughts about fellow drivers. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

TRAIN WHISTLES BLARE

CURWOOD: Trains and the sounds they make have long had a strong sentimental pull on America. Railroads, after all, were the arteries of industrial expansion in the east and the frontier in the west.

(A train whistles)

CURWOOD: For many, the sound of a train whistle conjures up image of risk and adventure and wide open spaces. For others, though, train whistles are not a thing of the past. They are in the present day and night and they are very, very loud. Patrick Cox of member station WBUR in Boston reports on the struggle between some communities and the Federal Government over train whistles.

(A woman's voice over, with music: "Help your daughter become a scientist...")

COX: Alice Peterson lives in an elderly housing complex that abuts a major freight line in Ashland, Massachusetts. On this afternoon, Peterson is sitting in front of her TV when she hears a train approaching.

(Approaching train whistle)

COX: Even though all the windows in her apartment are closed, the
whistle's screech --

(Loud train whistle)

COX: -- still causes Peterson to plug her ears with her fingers. It drowns out the TV and a couple of greeting cards perched on top of the TV set shake and fall to the floor. Peterson says it's been like this every day and night since she moved in last year.

PETERSON: First night I was here, I leaped out of bed: what is that?! I thought for sure they were bulldozing the building.

COX: Even now, Peterson says she can't adapt to the noise as much as she'd like.

PETERSON: I don't sleep through it, but I've learned to say to myself, this isn't happening to me.

COX: The problem is that Peterson's apartment sits right between 2 grade crossings about a quarter mile apart.

(Crossing bells)

COX: After the great crossing bells ring and lights flash, the gates come down, and then the train comes through.

(Loud train whistle)

COX: About 25 trains a day come through here, blasting their whistles several times as an extra safety measure.

(Very loud train whistle)

COX: The whistle registers more than 100 decibels if you're standing 100 feet away: as much noise as a loud rock band makes, and loud enough to make some people suffer temporary hearing loss.

(Very loud train whistle)

COX: Ashland officials have tried without success to force the train companies to silence their horns so the 50 people living in the elderly housing complex can get some sleep. Ashland Selectman Gary Gillani.

GILLANI: Sleep deprivation is a form of cruel and unusual punishment, and these people have to go through it in their golden years. You know, these people are supposed to be enjoying life at this point, and haven't had a night's sleep as long as they've lived here.

COX: There are 164,000 grade crossings like this in the nation, and trains sound their horns at most of them. But at 3,000 crossings, local authorities have passed ordinances outlawing whistles. Whistle bans are nothing new. The town of Concord, Massachusetts, prohibited train whistles more than 100 years ago. The whistle bans have sharply increased in the past 2 decades, though, as big cities have expanded commuter rail lines. But 2 years ago, Congress put its foot down and overturned the bans, citing safety reasons. Philip Alexic is with the Federal Railroad Administration.

ALEXIC: There's no question in our mind that the whistle will prevent a collision from occurring at a grade crossing. Even at crossings that have lights, gates, and bells, about 50% of the fatalities occur at those crossings. So even visual warnings sometimes don't protect drivers. We think that the additional audio warning is an additional factor that people may hear and prevent an accident.

COX: To prove its theory, the Railroad Administration points to a study it commissioned showing a 38% drop in accidents at crossings after whistle bans were suspended. Extrapolating those numbers, officials estimate that 9 or 10 lives could be saved every year if whistles are sounded at every crossing in the country. Alexic says safety must come ahead of peace and quiet.

ALEXIC: And I'm certainly sympathetic to people who are, have their sleep disrupted at night. But the purpose is to prevent fatalities from happening.

TAVANIER: It's absolute overkill, government overkill.

COX: That's Nancy Tavanier, who chairs the Acton, Massachusetts, Board of Selectmen. Acton has a whistle ban in place, but in order to keep the ban, the town will have to either close crossings or spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on new crossing gates and barriers. Town officials reject these alternatives as impractical. After all, says Tavanier, Acton's safety record hasn't suffered for a lack of whistles.

TAVANIER: When you pull up to a crossing, what makes you stop? Is it the whistle in the distance, or is it the fact the gate is across the road, the lights are flashing, and the bell is ringing? Then, if there happens to be a whistle, that only reinforces it. But that's not what's making you stop. What the whistle is for is to keep you from running the gate, and that's against the law. So that it's forcing hundreds of people in our community, if the whistles came back, to suffer because of the few who choose to break the law.

COX: Many people believe the stringent Federal rules make more sense in the wide open spaces in the west than they do in the urban northeast. What's more, there's less incentive to run the gates in the northeast because most trains are just a few cars long, so they pass by quickly.

(Crossing bells and the sound of a passing train)

COX: In Acton, Ann Cress and Jeff Barry have lived in a house within 100 feet of a grade crossing for the past 15 years. They've lived with, and now without whistles.

CRESS: When they first stopped blowing the whistle, it was truly amazing. We'd wake up and I could feel my heart starting to go faster, and I would get very tensed up, and it took a number of weeks to lose that reaction.

COX: Cress and Barry say they may move if the whistles come back. Barry for one says he just doesn't understand the Federal Government's reasoning.

BARRY: If this was such safety issue, if it really made a difference, why don't they require us as car drivers to blow our horns when we're going through a green light?

COX: Federal officials are now crafting new rules for grade crossing safety. Hearings will be held this summer, including stops in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston. After the rules are written, cities and towns will have a year to rescind their whistle bans. For Living on Earth, I'm Patrick Cox.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Across America, black farms and black farmers are disappearing and may be gone from the landscape by early in the next century. Two African- American farmers in Arkansas are trying to buck this trend. Their story is coming up on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under: blues harmonica)

AFRICAN-AMERICAN FARMERS: WORKING THE PLOUGH

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, and today we're visiting the Mississippi River delta.

(James Cotton blues harmonica music x-fade into ambiance of walking and then Ephron's garage)

CURWOOD: This fertile floodplain is flat as far as the eye can see. This is the home of the blues and former cotton plantations.

(Bird song)

Ephron Lewis owns a family farm on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi river near Memphis, Tennessee, not far from where his ancestors once toiled in bondage. On his farm there are no chickens in the yard or cows in the fields. Instead there's a huge garage where Mr. Lewis works on the giant machines that till his soil, plant his seeds, and harvest his crops.

(Hammering)

LEWIS: This is something I really love doing, doing mechanical work. And I tell folk, I guarantee em I'll get it outside the door, but I don't
guarantee it'll work (laughter).

CURWOOD: Well this is quite this is quite a shop you've got, full, all kinds of -- this is like a major garage, as it were, that we're standing
in. There's a huge combine you pulled in here.

LEWIS: We try to do most of our work ourselves. We're just a kind of a one stop shop, as we call it. We don't build tractor...:

(Ambiance of Ephron's farm -- shop noise at a distance fades into birds)

CURWOOD: At first glance, the Ephron Lewis Farm doesn't look like much. The few rusting old trucks in the yard and peeling paint on the buildings belie the economic powerhouse this 3000 acre spread has become since 1917. Back then, Mr. Lewis's father and grandfather crossed the river, leaving the state of Mississippi to buy this land at a time when many of their neighbors were heading north to the big cities.

(Birds)

LEWIS: This is our land here. This is our -- this is what we will hope to keep in this family for a lifetime.

CURWOOD: I see that little building down there is a church?

LEWIS: Yes that church was founded by my father and some more people. And that's on one corner of our property here. My father gave a spot there for to build that church on. An old name for it was Colored Methodist Episcopal church and they changed the name from that to Christian Methodist.

CURWOOD: Ephron. Where does that name come from?

LEWIS: That name comes from the Bible. That name was found 23rd chapter of Genesis. It's about a Ephron, a landowner in the country of Heath where Abraham buries his wife. That's where the name comes from.

CURWOOD: Landowner, sounds like you.

LEWIS: Yes, uh huh, similar to me. Maybe he ate more than I do but it was where, what the name represents.

CURWOOD: Faith, knowledge of the land, and a good head for business have been the keys to Ephron Lewis's success. In addition to growing rice, soybeans and wheat, Mr. Lewis operates the nation's only black-owned rice mill. His story is an exception. Since the Lewises purchased this cropland during World War I, farm acreage owned by blacks has shrunk dramatically. Today black family farms are disappearing even faster than white family farms. Ephron Lewis is fortunate. His family has overcome the challenges that drove other African-Americans out of the South and out of farming.

LEWIS: When I was in High School we didn't have electricity .... Arkansas Power and Light came within a mile, listen, within a half a mile of us, and came on our road to a white family that's just down the road and they cut it off there. And we tried to get them to bring it on down here, but they just refused to bring it that far. And on the other end of the road there was a white family on that end, they brought it to their place. And so we were just kind of left in the middle without utilities.

CURWOOD: Left in the dark.

LEWIS: Yes

(Birds)

CURWOOD: Through the persistence of his father, the power company ultimately relented and brought in the lines. The house that got that first power hook-up still stands, though it used to be on stilts three feet above the ground. The stilts kept the house high and dry when the Mississippi river flooded its banks. The periodic floods were a nuisance, but they were also an essential part of agriculture in the delta region. Flood waters brought important nutrients to replenish the dark soil.

LEWIS: When we were children we used to call this "gumbo", but the real name for it is heavy clay. And this is what we have. We always talk about we wish we had some of that good light silt loam soil that we could work almost anytime. But this heavy clay is soil that, we had a saying when we were boys and girls growing up in this part of the country -- if you stick with it in the summer it will stick with you in the winter. And what I mean by that, as you walk on it in the winter it will stick to your shoes, and your feet keep getting larger and larger and larger so -- this is until a whole big clump falls off. This soil here is highly productive and it's real -- once you get it worked up and you work it right it will produce for you.

CURWOOD: Keeping that soil rich today is a challenge. Up and down the Mississippi, levees have been built to keep the river in its banks. And that means the natural fertilizers that used to come from river silt come instead from chemicals Mr. Lewis has to buy. It's all part of today's energy-intensive, mechanized agriculture.

(Combine truck arriving)

CURWOOD: It's the peak of the harvest season. A huge tractor trailer pulls into the farm yard, carrying a brand-new shiny red combine just in time to pick hundreds of acres of soy beans. The machine rents for thousands a week. But it pays for itself in less than a day and brings joy to the mechanic in Mr. Lewis.

LEWIS: And this is the driver's seat, and this is the control right here, this thing here, you just keep your hands on this. And these buttons here to control the head up and down.

CURWOOD: How much soybean can you cut with this?

LEWIS: This thing you can cut 100 acres a day with. Its a bean getting machine, I'll tell you.

CURWOOD: Ephron Lewis's face lights up when he's in the driver's seat, looking ahead to a good harvest.

(Footsteps or tractor trailer leaving, fade to birds)

CURWOOD: But ask him about the long term , and he's not so sure about the future of his farm or those run by other African Americans.

LEWIS: The average age of a black farmer in -- well I don't know about all the United States but in Arkansas is about 59 years old. And they say the average age of a white farmer in Arkansas is somewhere around 51. And so this is one of the things that's happening, farmers are getting old.

CURWOOD: Black farmers an endangered species?

LEWIS: Yes they are an endangered species, yeah. And I go as far as to say there's a concerted effort to keep us an endangered species.

CURWOOD: Oh?

LEWIS: What I mean by that is a concerted effort -- what keeps you going is finances, and finance is a way -- if they can keep the finances away from you that's a way to keep you from being sustainable.

CURWOOD: Unlike many farmers Ephron Lewis has been careful to build up a financial reserve. It protects him against fluctuating markets and racial discrimination by banks and government agencies that make farm loans. In the 1980s when family farms across the nation were going out of business at record rates Mr. Lewis was able to survive. The motto of the day was "get big or get out of farming." He got big, with some assistance from his family.

LEWIS: We've kind of prepared for this. And we have a large family and we are close, and if I get in trouble I go to my sisters and brothers and they help me. And I've built back me a little sustainability within my farming operation myself, so that even though you may tell me no, you don't really keep me from going because I have a way of kind of support, backing myself.

(Crickets chirping, wind whistling in the trees)

CURWOOD: Taking care of his own farm was not enough for Ephron Lewis. So in the early 1980s he helped to create an organization to fight racial discrimination by lenders, and to assist other African-American farmers to keep their land. He became the founding president of the Arkansas Land and Farm Development Corporation and hired Calvin King as the group's executive director.

KING: In 1910 there was roughly some 15 million acres of land owned by African-American farmers, you know, in the United States. That has declined to roughly some 4-million acres or less than that now. And predictions are that by the year 2000 or by the year 2005 that there will be a total disappearance of black farmers in the country.

CURWOOD: Mr. King and I chatted on the grounds of the Arkansas Land and Farm Development Corporation, about a hour's drive east of Little Rock. These gently sloping fields have been training grounds for African American farmers since 1919 when a disciple of Booker T. Washington established an agricultural school here. Today Arkansas Land and Farm researches sustainable farming methods and helps black farmers obtain the credit they need to stay in business. There's also a youth program that brings high school students from as far away as Chicago to learn about farming as a career. On this day Mr. King is launching a new project aimed at getting growers interested in raising hogs.

(Hogs grunting)

CURWOOD: But first he has to get 12 squealing sows off a trailer.

(Voices calling: "Hey Rick!...")

KING: You need to get 'em some feed out here. Put some feed out...

CURWOOD: Rather than being kept in pens -- the traditional way to raise hogs, these swine are being allowed to graze in a series of open fields. Yes, hogs do eat grass and in what's called rotational grazing when they eat most of the grass in one field they are shifted to another one. Each time they move, the hogs leave their manure behind. It fertilizes the field, instead of building up in a huge pile that could contaminate ground water. Calvin King says the project is designed to be low cost and environmentally friendly.

KING: Well hopefully it will bring more diversification with some of our smaller farmers, you know where they'll both understand the opportunities for diversification and the markets that exist as well as what we call some of the holistic approaches and production practices -- producing vegetables and corn crops, and how you can feed that back off through an alternative market through livestock, you know, as a support income area.

(Hogs, fading to trains)

CURWOOD: The trains that pass near the Arkansas Land and Farm complex are a reminder of how much has changed for rural southern African-Americans over the decades. For years the trains took them North, away from the threat of lynching and toward the promise of more opportunity. While the trains don't carry many passengers these days, African Americans still leave here for the cities, with a few notable exceptions.

(Cleophus's tractor plowing the field)

MILLS: My name is Cleophus Mills Jr. from Marvel, Arkansas, and I'm 22 years old. And I'm a soy bean, wheat, and milo farmer. I own two tractors and I work 220 acres of soy beans in the lower Mississippi river valley.

CURWOOD: If there is one person who represents the hope for the future of Arkansas's black farmers it is young Cleophus Mills. His is a classic American success story. In only four years he has built up an substantial farming operation.

MILLS: I started farming in 1993. My first experience with farming is I had a youth loan. I went from one acre into six acres.

CURWOOD: And what were you growing?

MILLS: I was growing okra, very hot and sticky. I had to do it, I had no other choice, it was my only source of income.

CURWOOD: And the next year you went to 6 acres?

MILLS: Yes, sir. But I also was raising southern purple hull peas, selling for 8 dollars a bushel. I had about 3 or 4 acres, plus I was doing a little off seasonal work for a grain elevator, which is in Marvel, Arkansas, which I really got my start of raising my soybeans by scooping beans off the floor, bringing them out to my farm, and planting them. So now I don't have time to work for Farmers Supply, I work for myself 7 days out of a week.

(Tractor starts and runs, goes away and comes back)

CURWOOD: Cleophus Mills now farms 220 rented acres. He owns an old combine, and looks to the day he can afford a better one. He got his first farm loan after participating in a special training program sponsored by Arkansas Land and Farm. One of the agency's goals is to get farmers to reduce their use of costly agricultural chemicals, to save money and protect the environment. But so far farmers affiliated with Arkansas Land and Farm grow only about 10% of their crops organically. One reason is a lack of markets for organic produce in the region, something the agency is trying to change. It's also trying to convince banks to lend money to farmers who grow alternative crops in a more sustainable way. On an afternoon when Cleophus Mills is turning the soil in a recently harvested soybean field, his former advisor from Arkansas Land and Farm, Bryant Stephens, stops by for a check in.

STEPHENS: How's it goin', Cleo?

MILLS: I'm doing all right, Bryant.

STEPHENS: All right, how's everything been going?

MILLS: All going fine.

STEPHENS: All right.

CURWOOD: Bryant Stephens is the director of Integrated Farming Systems at Arkansas Land and Farm. Mr. Stephens admits that it's been hard to convince even young farmers like Cleophus to move away from chemical-intensive farming methods. But he says those who don't farm organically will eventually pay the price.

(Tractor is turned off)

STEPHENS: The more and more they become dependent they become on those chemicals the more and more expensive their farm is going to be. And so we can get them to cut down on that. And then the health issue also, you know cause to handle those chemicals is not healthy for them either. We already have a situation where a lot of the farmers have not been able to make enough profit where they can be sustainable and stay on their farms. But the environmental problem is coming up now, so we got to make them become aware or else there's gonna be another situation we'll be faced with later on.

(Birds)

CURWOOD: Cleophus Mills once used organic methods to grow his crop of okra, but even with Mr. Stephen's advice, he says he can't afford to do it again.

MILLS: Why it doesn't make sense for me to go organic is because I don't have the labor. It take a lot of labor to grow organic because you can't use no chemical fertilizers. You got to use practically hand labor work, that's about all you can do. The number of acres I'm working I wouldn't succeed right to use organic, because everything would get out of control for me.

CURWOOD: Control and independence are important to Cleophus Mills. But so is the romance of farming.

MILLS: I love the smell of the soil, plus I love tillaging the soil. That's all I ever done all my life. I played farmer when I was a little kid, so I liked playing it, so I wanted to become a real farmer. So I got that chance, and I went for it.

CURWOOD: The smell.

MILLS: I love the smell of fresh dirt. I love to see the combines going through the fields. I like to see the dust. We can walk on a little further down.

(Footfalls through brush)

CURWOOD: Though there may not be many young black people interested in farming today, Cleophus Mills is not entirely alone. He now shares what he's learned with new students at Arkansas and Land and Farm, acting as a mentor.

MILLS: Most African-American farmers don't get the opportunity to get a chance to farm because they don't have the money, and they don't have the land. Without the land you cannot function. So you've got to have free working capital in order to get the money. You've got to have the experience, you've got to have land and you've got to have money. Without them three tools you cannot survive. And also, you've got to watch the next man from taking the land out from under you -- over rent, things like that. You've got to worry about the grain elevator taking your grain from you. Dockage, that's what hurts you.

CURWOOD: Dockage?

MILLS: When you raised the crop and they take it from you. See, if they can't get you in the field, they gonna get you at the end of it. There's some kind of way their gonna get the best of you. So it's tough, you got to love it in order to do it. If you don't love it, you can't do it.

(Birds)

CURWOOD: Cleophus Mills dreams of one day having a son who will inherit his love of farming. Ephron Lewis already has a son who lives in California. He left the farm a few years ago to explore the wider world. But Ephron Lewis hopes that soon his son will be drawn back to Arkansas to take over the family homestead.

(Birds)

LEWIS: This land is something near and dear to me. And it's near and dear to my brothers and sisters that's living. And I hope that it's been near and dear to my son. And I'm looking forward to him coming back, where he can take pride in running this operation.

CURWOOD: But as Ephron Lewis and Cleophus Mills both know, it takes more than pride to survive as a farmer. It takes grit, thrift, and a willingness to change with the times. For African Americans there is the added burden of discrimination in lending. And though the Arkansas Land and Farm Development Corporation has helped many black farmers stay in business, the decline in the numbers of black farmers continues. Whether people like Cleophus Mills and Ephron Lewis will still be tilling the soil a decade from now remains an open question.

(Birds)

CURWOOD: Our report on black farmers in Arkansas was produced by John Rudolph and edited by Chris Ballman.

Back to top

(Blues music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our production team includes George Homsy, Liz Lempert, Jesse Wegman, and Julia Madeson, Peter Christianson, Peter Shaw, and Daniel Grossman. Our associate editor is Kim Motylewski. Peter Thomson heads our western bureau. And we had help from Tom Kuo, Jill Hecht, and Emma Hayes. Chris Ballman is the senior producer. Our program is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Michael Aharon composed the theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Blues music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the Great Lakes Protection Fund and the George Gund Foundation for Great Lakes reporting; and the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues.

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