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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

December 18, 1998

Air Date: December 18, 1998

SEGMENTS

A Return to Old-Fashioned Milk Production?

In Canada, government scientists have discovered a report by the Monsanto Corporation, makers of Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH) which stimulates milk production in dairy cows. The document indicates that the hormone may be linked to certain thyroid and prostate diseases, and could be implicated in some cancers. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) first approved use of BGH back in 1933, and since then, about one in every three cows has been given the genetically engineered milk production stimulant. Steve Curwood speaks with Dr. Michael Hansen, a researcher at the Consumers' Union in New York about what has recently led activists to petition the FDA for a BGH ban. (05:30)

French Huntion Passion / Sarah Chayes

The French are passionate about many things. Add to the list of love, wine, and perfume, duck hunting. Tens of thousands of hunters took to the streets this year to protest the European Union's lawsuit to limit the migratory bird hunting season. Sarah Chayes reports from the Bay of the Somme River in northern France on the history of hunting in the region and the opposing viewpoints among the traditional local shooters, and the international lawmakers. (07:10)

Radical British Animal Rights Activists

British animal rights activist Barry Horne is serving a lengthy prison sentence for arson attacks against people and places he considers cruel to animals. Mr. Horne has ended a 67-day hunger strike protest after British government officials promised to look into the use of animals in experiments. In recent years, groups like Britain's Animal Liberation Front has claimed responsibility for dozens of guerrilla-style attacks, and had threatened to assassinate 10 people it accused of cruelty to animals if Mr. Horne had died on hunger strike. Steve Curwood speaks with journalist Kevin Toolis who has covered Britain's animal rights movement for the Guardian newspaper. (04:30)

Maurice ("Mo") Udall Remembered / Bruice Babbitt

U.S. Interior Secretary and former Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt has this remembrance of his friend and colleague Maurice Udall, or "Mo" as most people called him. Mo Udall, a former Democratic member of Congress from Arizona, died this past week of complications from Parkinson's disease. (03:00)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about... the winter solstice which is determined by heavenly measurements including the planet's orbit around the sun. (01:30)

Living on Earth's Fifth Annual Winter Solstice Seasonal Storytelling Special

With the winter solstice upon us, and the daylight hours at their shortest, we here at Living on Earth are taking a break from the news to tell stories of a different sort: the kind often told around a warm fire on a snowy night. In years past we've featured winter tales from around the world. This year, we decided to stay in our own backyard to savor stories of winter in New England. We invited to our studios two veteran storytellers; Jay O'Callahan, from Marshfield, Massachusetts, and Tom Weakley, from Burlington, Vermont. Hear stories about the miracle of healing and song, social justice undoing hypocrisy, Einstein's miscalculations, a tourist's disillusionment with Vermont, and the man and the mule. So, sit back, relax and enjoy a Living on Earth tradition at this holiday season... it's story-telling time for the next half hour. (25:20)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Sarah Chayes
GUESTS: Dr. Michael Hansen, Kevin Toolis, Jay O'Callahan, Tom Weakley
COMMENTATOR: Bruce Babbitt

(Theme music intro)

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

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Consumer groups, citing newly disclosed evidence, are calling for the banning a hormone that stimulates milk production.

HANSEN: Cows that are injected with bovine growth hormone will have increased levels of insulin-like growth factor number one in the milk, and that could potentially increase risk of polyps and tumors in humans.

CURWOOD: Also, we update the violent campaign for animal rights in the UK.

TOOLIS: Most British scientists are too afraid to speak in public about animal experimentation for fear that their homes will be picketed, that they would be physically attacked in the streets. I mean, it is a serious business.

CURWOOD: And the intense politics of duck hunting in France. We have those stories and more this week on Living on Earth but first this news.

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(NPR News follows)

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A Return to Old-Fashioned Milk Production?

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. A genetically- engineered hormone that stimulates milk production in cows is coming under fire from Canadian government scientists and US consumer groups. The Canadians have uncovered a report by the Monsanto company, makers of bovine growth hormone, that shows the hormone may be linked to prostate and thyroid disorders and may promote certain kinds of cancer. Since 1993, when the hormone was first approved by the Food and Drug Administration, as many as 30% of cows in the United States have been injected with it. Now activists are petitioning the FDA for a ban. Dr. Michael Hansen is a researcher at the Consumers Union in New York. He says the Canadians became concerned about missing data in the FDA records.

HANSEN: Well, the Canadian investigation was done by Health Canada, which is their equivalent of our Food and Drug Administration. And basically what they found was that there were significant gaps in the data. The one that's causing the most problem is there was a 90-day rat study. This 90-day study was the key study that our Food and Drug Administration used to determine that bovine growth hormone was safe, and to determine that they did not need to do longer-term toxicity testing to look for cancer, to look for birth defects. None of that was required for this. They only required a 90-day study, and they claim that it found nothing, and that's why they didn't require longer- term testing.

CURWOOD: Canadians say that's false, that in fact it did find something. They found a response to ingesting this. It created antibodies. It created cysts on thyroids. Is this cancer, these cysts, or are they just benign growth?

HANSEN: We don't know because we don't have the full study to look at. In the gaps analysis they just refer to that, so I don't even know the extent of the increase in the cysts. So until Monsanto or the Food and Drug Administration releases the whole study, we won't know.

CURWOOD: Did the US Food and Drug Administration know about these problems with bovine growth hormone when it approved the drug in 1993?

HANSEN: It's unclear whether the FDA knew about the problems. Monsanto claims that all the data from this 90-day rat study was turned over. The FDA is on record of saying that they did not have all the data. I tend to think that they must have had the data because scientifically you can't evaluate how good a study is if all you have is a summary of it. If that's true, then they misled the public, and falsely approved this product when they should have, at the very least, required longer-term toxicity testing.

CURWOOD: Tell me, does bovine growth hormone show up in the milk of the cow that takes it?

HANSEN: Yes it does. It's there at very low levels in the milk. But of course, since it's a hormone, hormones can be active at very small quantities. I should also say that bovine growth hormone doesn't appear to act as a growth hormone in humans. However, insulin-like growth factor number one, or IGF- 1, it's actually the IGF-1 that stimulates the milk production. IGF-1 in humans and cows is the exact same molecule, and the studies, even the FDA agrees on this, that milk from cows that are treated with bovine growth hormone have significantly higher levels of IGF-1 compared to the milk of untreated cows.

CURWOOD: So this could conceivably have an effect on one's insulin system in the body.

HANSEN: The concern is not so much with the insulin system. We're now finding that IGF-1 is a potent growth promoter, and it's been associated with growth of quite a number of tumors. In the last year, for example, we've had large epidemiology studies connecting IGF-1 to breast cancer. And the concern that we have is that cows that are injected with bovine growth hormone will have increased levels of insulin-like growth factor number one in the milk, and that could potentially increase our risk of polyps and tumors.

CURWOOD: In humans.

HANSEN: In humans.

CURWOOD: So, what's your recommendation right now regarding bovine growth hormone? Do you think that this drug's approval should be suspended by the FDA pending further investigation?

HANSEN: Consumers Union believes that the proper administrative procedures have not been followed, and so the drug should be pulled off the market, that its registration should be suspended until the appropriate testing has been done.

CURWOOD: Michael Hansen is a researcher at the Consumers Union in New York. I want to thank you for taking this time with me today.

HANSEN: Why, thank you.

CURWOOD: Since we conducted our interview, top officials at the FDA told Living on Earth that the agency did in fact have the results from Monsanto's 90-day rat study all along. But they said it was misplaced and not reviewed until this fall. The FDA says nothing in the data would have affected its approval of bovine growth hormone.

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CURWOOD: Coming up: should humans have more rights than animals? Britain's increasingly militant animal rights movement says no. That's ahead here on Living on Earth.

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French Huntion Passion

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Recently, the European Union decided to take one of its own members to court. The dispute is over the 1979 Wild Birds Directive, which bans hunting of wild fowl during crucial periods in the migratory season. In France, the hunting season is about 2 weeks too long on each end, the European Commission says. But the attempts to curtail hunting have stirred intense passions in France. Sarah Chayes reports.

(Splashing water)

CHAYES: The Bay of the Somme is a vast estuary that empties into the English Channel. Its broad sand flats are gentle shades of pearl gray. Handfuls of birds scatter across the cloud-filled sky. Among them, ducks and geese, winging down from the Arctic north to winter feeding grounds in Morocco or Senegal. For 150 years locals have hunted the migrating birds, hiding out in duck blinds among the reeds. Hunters here, as elsewhere in France, are ferociously opposed to the European Union's right to curtail their pastime.

(Splashing continues)

CHAYES: To get out to their blinds, hunters park on a dirt road nearby, then walk across the flats in hip-high wading boots. They're dressed in regimental khaki and carry live decoys in a gunny sack over their shoulder.

(Duck calls)

CHAYES: Christian Gricourt's blind, looks like a bunker, complete with a netting of fake leaves over the roof for camouflage.

(Sounds of unpacking)

CHAYES: Inside there's a heater and a mini-kitchen and 2 beds up against the horizontal slit in the end wall. Gricourt fits a telescopic sight onto his gun and peers out at the square pond dug in the sand in front.

(Duck calls continue, metallic sounds)

CHAYES: He's done this since he was a kid, thrilled to go out with his father. Gricourt says he takes no special pleasure in bringing home a lot of ducks. Five or 6 is plenty.

GRICOURT: [Speaks in French] TRANSLATOR: But you have to realize that humble people hunt here. And it's true that when the father brings 10 ducks home, the mother is happy, because she doesn't have to buy meat for the children. That's why, before making lots of rules, people have to be close to the terrain to see how people live, why they do what they do.

CHAYES: The European directive says migratory birds should not be hunted during their period of reproduction or during their return to rearing grounds. In Gricourt's view, the European Commission should be leaving these sorts of regulations to local traditions.

GRICOURT: [Speaks in French] TRANSLATOR: If the European Union exists so there will be no more wars, so people can be happy, then long live Europe. But we have come to realize that the organization is only concerned with details. The European Union wasn't capable of ending the war in Yugoslavia, but it will tell water fowl hunters they can shoot teal on July 14 or August 25? People here will never accept that. You'll get a revolution.

CHAYES: This contempt irritates European civil servants. Peter Yorgenson, spokesman for the environment commissioner, says it's logical for the European Union to have jurisdiction in this area.

YORGENSON: This is important to all member states, and it has, if you will, to do with trying to secure common heritage, of which animals and birds are a very important component.

CHAYES: The quarrel with France is over a few weeks. Experts say certain ducks haven't fledged yet when French hunting begins in mid-July. If adults are shot, their young will die. Other species are in mating couples before the season ends in late winter. European officials note that to kill birds then, when they're getting ready to move north to nest and reproduce, cuts into the core population and jeopardizes the future generation of birds. French hunters retort that wild bird populations are stable.

LEROY: [Speaks in French]

CHAYES: Last June, amid 2 days of inflamed oratory, such arguments swayed the French National Assembly. Despite the ongoing European action against France, Parliament voted to keep the long hunting season. Even the devoutly European socialists voted against their own environment minister and their coalition partners from the Green Party in favor of the hunters.

LEROY: [Speaks in French]

CHAYES: Deputy Maurice Leroy cautions from the podium, "Don't forget the peasantry joined the French Revolution once it got the right to hunt." One of the people he was scolding is Noel Mamere, Green representative from another big hunting district in the southwest. Mamere was one of the exactly 20 deputies out of 577 who voted against a long hunting season. He says the representatives wanted to save their seats. Hunting is one of the only single issues that mobilize French voters, especially in his region, where hunters even have their own political party.

MAMERE: The hunter in southwest, inside the region, they are the swing vote, the [bagging?] the vote, as the very leading leading majority. And the swing are the hunters.

CHAYES: Before the June vote in Paris, 150,000 hunters demonstrated in the French capitol, complete with dogs and guns, to make their wishes clear. Sociologist Michel Panson has written a book on traditional hunting and why it stirs such passion. He says the national assemblyman who talked about the French Revolution wasn't kidding. It's possible the French have a collective memory of hunting as part and parcel of the rights they won in 1789. But he says there's something else going on, too, a kind of struggle between 2 different ways of seeing nature.

PINCON: [Speaks in French]

CHAYES: Pincon says city dwellers tend to have a spectator's contact with nature. They want to look at it. They find it represents a kind of perfection. Country people have a more active, predatory relationship. They take what they need from nature. And at the same time, they're more intimate with it. They know it, the habits of animals, the direction of the wind, the quality of soil. At the heart of the fight over hunting, Pincon says, is the refusal of country people to surrender nature to middle-class city dwellers, today's rulers, who would turn it into a museum.

(Duck calls; a rifle shot)

CHAYES: The sky lightens outside Christian Gricourt's cozy blind, after a dinner of cassoulet and pate and a choice bottle of Bordeaux, and after a long night without a sign of a duck. A few shots can be heard to the south, but only a string of seagulls crosses Gricourt's sights. Who are we bothering out here, he wonders aloud. EU officials feel differently. They say it's no use making European environmental rules if they can't be enforced. For Living on Earth, I'm Sarah Chayes on the Bay of the Somme River in northern France.

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(Duck calls continue, up and under)

Radical British Animal Rights Activists

CURWOOD: In Britain, an animal rights activist serving a prison sentence for firebombing recently ended a 67-day hunger strike. Barry Horne halted his protest after members of Parliament promised to look into the use of animals in experiments. His supporters include Britain's Animal Liberation Front, an underground movement which has claimed responsibility for dozens of guerilla- style attacks in recent years. The group had threatened to assassinate 10 people it accused of cruelty to animals if Mr. Horne had died on hunger strike. Journalist Kevin Toolis has written extensively on Britain's animal rights movement for the Guardian newspaper. He says the movement exacts a heavy toll on the British economy.

TOOLIS: Each and every year there are something like a 1,000, 2,000 actions. Some of them are incredibly petty. Like, there has been a sustained campaign to go around and super-glue the locks of butcher shops. I mean, much more serious actions by the Animal Liberation Front have been the burning down of department stores, the use of firebombs and incendiary devices against research laboratories. The expenditure in terms of the security does run into tens of millions of dollars each and every year.

CURWOOD: How many people are involved in all of this? And how are they organized?

TOOLIS: It's not a formal hierarchy, it's not a military organization. It's a loose confederation of individuals who basically come together because they believe in the same things. They believe that, you know, western industrial society is animal abusing. They rely upon a wider network of activists who are prepared to go on quite violent demonstrations or take part in raids. And they would number 300 or 400 people. Beyond them is a sort of passive network of supporters, that ranges into 3,000 or 4,000 people.

CURWOOD: Now, you wrote that no other violent revolutionary movement in the past 200 years has gained such widespread acceptance in both the middle- and working-class households. What explains this popularity in Britain?

TOOLIS: It is a difficult conundrum to try and unpick. Clearly, the British have a fondness, a sentimentality, towards animals. Cats and dogs are very popular. Television nightly programs have programs about Mad About Pets or Animal Hospital. I mean, these programs attract large audiences in Britain. And so that seems to be the base by which the Animal Liberation Front tap into for support. I mean, they often compare the kinds of medical experiments undergone by laboratory animals, they often try to say that this could happen to your cat, your dog. Obviously, they bring it down to a personal level.

CURWOOD: Does the Animal Liberation Front reach beyond Britain?

TOOLIS: Yes, I think the ALF, as it's called, has a branch in North America. There's recently been a sustained campaign of burning down McDonalds in Belgium. There have been actions in Sweden. The British ALF has spawned ALFs all around the world, and is seen as being, you know, a leader, an inspiration to animal rights activists everywhere.

CURWOOD: So, in general, would you say the Animal Liberation Front is growing in strength and support in Britain? Or not?

TOOLIS: It's very hard, actually, to assess whether it is growing. Certainly, I mean, we're talking about it. We're conscious of animal rights philosophies in a way that were simply unheard of and unknown 10 years ago, and probably in parts of America are still relatively alien. But most British scientists are too afraid to speak in public about animal experimentation for fear that their homes will be picketed, that letter bombs would be sent to their addresses, that they would be physically attacked in the streets. I mean, it is a serious business.

CURWOOD: Kevin Toolis writes for Britain's weekend Guardian. Thank you, sir.

TOOLIS: Thank you for listening.

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Maurice ("Mo") Udall Remembered

CURWOOD: An unabashed friend of the environment is gone. Maurice Udall, a former Democratic member of Congress from Arizona, died this past week after a long bout with Parkinson's Disease. Mr. Udall, or "Mo," as most folks called him, built his legacy with a wit and humor that are more than rare these days on Capitol Hill. US Interior Secretary and former Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt has this remembrance of his old friend and colleague.

BABBITT: Mo Udall came to Congress in 1961, just in time to participate in the development of our greatest environmental laws: the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Endangered Species Act in 1966, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, and the National Environmental Policy Act. Then, in the 1970s, as a committee chairman, he led the greatest conservation fight of this century: the struggle to set aside 100 million acres of Alaska lands for parks, wildlife refuges, and national forests. Finally, in 1980, the bill passed, and there was talk of naming a mountain after Mo. It didn't happen, but he delighted in telling this story:

"A few days after the vote, I got a letter in the mail from an irate Alaskan, who said he had viewed my televised remarks and had concluded that I was a blockhead. Enclosed with his letter was a beautiful photo of a lofty, snow- capped mountain, below which he had written, 'With regard to your comments about our naming a mountain after you, you asked for it, you've got it. Mount BS. Named in honor of Morris Udall and his programs which so well reflect the name of this mountain.'"

In the 1980s, Mo took up the cause of the hill people of the Appalachian Mountains, whose communities were being destroyed by the ravages of strip mining, rock slides, floods, and polluted streams. He took on the coal companies and gave us the first laws to regulate strip mining. Back in Arizona he took up the cause of water rights for Indians.

His work was not always recognized or appreciated. He loved to tell how after 7 terms in Congress he returned to Tucson, where he started his campaign by asking the first man he met if he would vote for him for Congress. The man replied, "Sure I will. Anything would be better than what we have up there now."

Mo's real monument will not be a courthouse or a road project or a dam. It is the seashores, the forests, and the national parks that he has saved for generations to come. His epitaph could well be the words of Will Rogers, that he so loved to quote. "We are here for just a spell and then pass on. So get a few laughs and do the best you can. Live your life so that whenever you lose, you are ahead."

CURWOOD: US Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, remembering former Arizona congressman Morris Udall, who died December 12 of complications from Parkinson's Disease. It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity: www.wajones.org; and Church and Dwight, a tradition of environmental responsibility: the makers of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, the standard of purity.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Coming up, it's time to sit back, relax, and enjoy a Living on Earth tradition at this holiday season. It's storytelling time for the next half hour after this break. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

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SECOND HALF HOUR

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Stonyfield Farm Yogurt, profits for the planet, supporting initiatives that protect the Earth.

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

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: "When awful darkness and silence reign over the great Gramboolian plain, through the long, long wintry nights." So wrote the poet Edward Lear about the season whose start we mark at 8:56 PM Eastern Time on December 21st, the winter solstice. The solstice is determined by heavenly measurements including the planet's orbit around the sun, but for many people this astronomical event is cause for much Earthly revelry. Animals are key to many solstice ceremonies. Take guising, a ritual practiced in rural Britain to this day. Guisers dress in skins and masks to make amends to animals slaughtered for food and sacrifice. The oldest surviving masks, made of deer, date to 7,500 BC. To play a part in the celebration just don a mask, gather a few friends, and go door to door singing the Somerset Wassail song. Across Europe, stories about bears usually went hand in hand with winter celebrations. But since bear populations there have all but disappeared, most tales now feature a slightly smaller and less menacing creature, the badger. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Living on Earth's Fifth Annual Winter Solstice Seasonal Storytelling Special

CURWOOD: With the winter solstice upon us and the daylight hours at their shortest, we here at Living on Earth are taking a break from the news to tell stories of a different sort, the kind often told around a warm fire on a snowy night. In years past we featured winter tales from ancient Greece, Europe and Russia, as well as the legends of Native Americans and Eskimos. So, this year, we're looking into our own back yard, to savor stories of winter in New England. We invited to our studios 2 veteran storytellers, Jay O'Callahan from Marshfield, Massachusetts, and Tom Weakley from Burlington, Vermont. And Tom starts us off with a tale about a curious character named Bucky Grimm, who had a passion for one particular animal.

WEAKLEY: The things Bucky liked to acquire was mules. Bucky had kind of a run of mules, and he was always looking for a good mule, and he'd been over to Glastonbury to take care of his wife's mother. And he was coming home one day, went by a barnyard, and by God there was a beautiful mule all white, perfectly white mule. Well, Bucky lost his heart to that mule, and he went up to the farmer. And he says, "What do you take for that mule?" Farmer says, "Two hundred." Bucky said, "I'll give you 130 and I'll give it to you right now in case." "Sold," says the farmer, "You've bought yourself a mule." Bucky says, "Well, I'll be back in 2, 3 days, and I'll pick that mule up in my truck."

Three days later Bucky came back with his truck, and the farmer came out looking kind of glum. Bucky says, "What's the matter?" "Well," the farmer says, "you know that mule you bought." He said, "That very night that mule went belly-up. Yep," he says, "he's graveyard dead. And since you'd already paid me for the mule, I figured your mule died, not mine."

Well, Bucky realized he'd been impulsive and he'd paid in advance for the mule, and so he said, "Yes, okay, that's true." He thought a minute and he says, "I believe I'll take that animal anyway."

So the farmer got his backhoe and bucket loader, dropped it into the back of Bucky's truck with a whole bunch of snow, of course, and Bucky went home with it. Next morning Bucky was all over Bennington putting up posters. Poster said, "Win yourself a beautiful white mule. Dollar a chance. See Bucky Grimm."

By golly, Bucky sold about 200, 300 of those tickets. And a week after the raffle, then this farmer from out in Glastonbury, he saw Bucky down on South Street in Bennington. "Bucky," he says, "I guess you must have had a lot of people upset about that, getting a dead mule."

"No," Bucky said, "just one."

So the farmer says, "Well," he says, "whatja do about him?"

"Well," Bucky said, "I did the only honest Vermonter thing. I gave him his dollar back."

(Curwood laughs)

O'CALLAHAN: That's wonderful.

WEAKLEY: All these stories are old, old, you know, they just travel around the country and around the world. That's a Vermont version.

CURWOOD: Vermont these days is almost a boutique. It's an image to people who don't live there.

WEAKLEY: Right.

CURWOOD: Is there a story you like to tell about the tourists who come?

WEAKLEY: Oh, Lord, the woods are full of stories about the tourists. They're just full of 'em. Well, there is this story about the fellow who was pumping gas in this ski town, and the people had come up from down-country, you know, to ski and have a good time and everything. They were looking for a little evening night life. They stopped off the mountain and went to this fellow for gas. So, while he was putting the gas in, the man said, "Well, we thought we might take in a movie tonight." He says, "Can you tell us where your theater is?" And the fellow pumping gas says, "No, we don't have a movie house in town."

"Well," he says, "okay, how about -- " He says, "We like bowling." He says, "Where would I find the bowling alley?" And the fellow pumping gas says, "Well, we don't have a bowling alley, either, in town."

So then the fellow from down-country said, "Well, that's okay." He says, "Well, we're hungry, anyway." So he says, "can you just steer us to a good place to eat?"

And the fellow pumping gas says, "No, we don't have a restaurant in town."

Well, by this time the guy from down-country is getting a little peeved. So he says, "My God," he said, "what do you people do around here for excitement?"

The fellow puts the nozzle back on the pump and he says, "Well," he says, "mister, this is Vermont. We don't get excited."

(Laughter)

CURWOOD: Jay O'Callahan, you don't live in Vermont, you live in a little more urban setting, huh?

O'CALLAHAN: Yeah, I live in Marshfield, close to the ocean down on the south shore.

CURWOOD: Of Massachusetts.

O'CALLAHAN: Right.

CURWOOD: Just outside of Boston. I'm wondering if you can bring us a story for this dark time of year.

O'CALLAHAN: Yeah, let me tell you a story that is a story about growing up. I grew up in a neighborhood that's called Pill Hill. Still called Pill Hill to this day. A neighborhood of big old-fashioned houses, and we moved in when I was 7 years old, second grade. Thirty-two rooms. My parents were teachers and they had no money at all. But they had an eye for mansions on the cheap and they found this 32-room house for sale for almost nothing, because no one wanted to heat the great big houses after World War II.

So we got this house. I loved the house. Guests would come and I would say, "Can I take your coat?" One woman said, "You certainly may not." (Curwood laughs)

But we did heat the great old kitchen. There was a wonderful Franklin stove and it had these big red cheeks; I loved that in the winter. And we'd go sledding right outside. We were right on the top and there was a women's hospital at the bottom. So we called it Forceps, Forceps Avenue. W'e'd slide down so fast there.

And Christmas Eve, I loved the light in the darkness on Pill Hill. When I was 7 and 8 and 9, it started when I was 7, we would run down the outside back stairs in the dark, on Christmas Eve. Be very cold. Climb over the snowbank, and we'd start to run across, to the Grahams' house. And I would turn and look at our house, and it would take my breath away. This great house was in darkness. But there would be a candle lit in every window. My oldest sister Maureen, she was 9 at the time, the most responsible person in the world, she would take Dad all around the house, light those candles. And it was stunning. Maureen never forgot anything. But anyway, then we'd run to the Grahams, and Dr. Graham would take all the neighborhood kids all over the neighborhood. And it was so special. Dr. Graham ran the Faulkner Hospital in Jamaica Plain. He was a migraine headache specialist, and he would work 7 days a week till 9 or 10. But he would come home early, a few days before Christmas Eve, gather us in the living room. And we would rehearse, and we wanted to just belt out the songs, but he would bend over, conduct us, with the shoulders, his hands, his eyes. And we would sing "Venite." He would say, "Quiet, quiet, quiet." "Venite..." Then he would stand up a little more. [Louder] "Venite..." Then he would stand all the way up. [Still louder] "Venite adoramus, Dominum!"

We felt important, 'cause music was as important as medicine to him. Well, then came the Christmas Eve when everything was different. I was so excited that Christmas Eve, I was 10 years old. But mom was so different. She's always full of energy, not that day. Mom was tired and something was all wrong. She'd given birth just a couple of days ago to my baby brother Christopher. I had 3 sisters, but now I had a brother, Christopher, and he had this huge name. My name is Jay, it's so small, but his was huge. [Loudly] Christopher! I could see him in my mind, with his diapers, carrying the car home: "Christopher's home!"

Well, Christopher didn't come home. Mom came home without him, and she said, "Something's wrong with his heart but he'll be fine."

Well, the day grew late, Christmas Eve day. Wasn't quite dark. Mom, she was thinking about Dad, he was shopping with Uncle Neal. That meant he might come home festive! Just when it got dark, phone rang. She picked it up, and the doctor said, "Your child is dying; there's nothing he can do." [Whispers] And he hung up and it was so abrupt.

Daddy came home, and he was furious when he heard that. He called the hospital and he said to that doctor, "That is no way to tell anyone their child is dying. We'll be right down."

So we all went down. Down in the cold Christmas Eve. Up to the third floor, down the corridor, and then we looked through this thick glass, and there were the tiny little babies and one of them was blue. It was Christopher. He was dying. Another doctor came over and said, "Listen, there is a new procedure. We replace the blood. And there's a chance, we'll know in a few days." So we went home not knowing if Christopher would live or die. And Dad, he had helped Mom up those huge stairs, down into her room. He came out of the room, and just before he shut the door, he turned and he said into the darkness, "Helen, get some sleep. You'll be fine."

He shut the door and there were we in the hall. And Dad said, "There's nothing we can do, you just hope for the best. Why don't you go Christmas caroling?"

So we ran down the outside back stairs, climbed the snowbank, ran to the Grahams. Doctor Graham took us all over that neighborhood, it's a huge neighborhood, and he always knew who was hurt and who was lonely. Who needed help. So we would go to different houses, and it took a couple of hours. We were coming over Pill Hill, freezing and it's all over, and we all looked up at the same time, and there's our great house in darkness. But there was a candle lit in every window. Daddy did it by himself. And Dr. Graham said, "We're going to sing one more carol; I want you to do this very well."

We did something we'd never done before. We went by our front door, round to the side. We were standing in the snow, looking up at Mother's window, which was all black. But there was a candle lit in the window. And we're all singing The First Noel. And suddenly, Mother was standing. We could see her in the window. She had a white housecoat on; she looked like an angel.

It was 10 years later that we were just finishing the Christmas caroling on Pill Hill, and Dr. Graham said, "One more carol." It was a ritual now; we always went and sung to Mother's window. We were singing up to the window and I'm in my college sweater, singing The First Noel. Mother appeared, the way she always did. And then I looked in the dark and my older sister Maureen was crying. I thought, "What is she crying for?" And then I realized, "Oh, she's just been married, so she's moving away."

And then I realized she was crying because she was standing beside Christopher. He was 10 years old. And that's a story, "The Darkness on Pill Hill." Christopher loves that story.

WEAKLEY: I'll bet. Oh, that's great. Wow.

O'CALLAHAN: He's lucky to be alive.

WEAKLEY: Oh, gosh.

CURWOOD: So, a theme in your storytelling, Jay O'Callahan, is the power of healing at this dark time of the year. It's when a lot of sickness and death comes. But you speak of the power of healing here.

O'CALLAHAN: Yes. I really do think this is a healing form. And I think the peoples long before us knew that. The Native Americans knew that and still know it. When you tell a story, whether it's formally in a theater, or you're just sitting around a studio or you're with a child or friends, there's something very inviting about it. You invite the listener into your world, into the characters you see, and they see them. And in that very process of inviting, I think there's something healing about that. It's let's enter this world together, whatever it is. Let's see the mule together, let's be in Vermont together. Let's go to Pill Hill together. Whatever you say, you're asking someone, you're trusting them, come on into this world. And one of the healing parts is voice. You know, the sound of a human voice can be very healing, if the pretension is gone and nervousness is gone, and you're just saying to this child or to this friend: let me tell you this. Your sharing of your breath, your voice, your rhythms, your sense of language, your sense of life. So in that sense, Steve, I think it's always healing.

CURWOOD: Here at Living on Earth, we've done storytelling at the winter time, at the winter solstice, every year since the program was started. Why do we pick winter to tell stories? Tom?

WEAKLEY: Well, I think because we're not able to do a lot of other things. The things that we did, especially in New England here, that we did the rest of the year, get put aside for winter. And one of the things that the farmer will do in Vermont is, he will order things. This is when the mail order catalogues came out, when he would buy new equipment and go someplace to look at new tractors and things, or the tractor salesmen would come around in the winter because they knew they could catch the farmer there. He'd be, if he wasn't listening for stories and milking, he had time to listen to a pitch about tractors.

CURWOOD: Jay, what do you say?

O'CALLAHAN: Well, I know that I think of stories as fiery. And when I grew up in Pill Hill we had a wonderful fireplace. We used to gather around late at night, too. And there was something wonderful about the light. We would turn off the electric lights, and we would have the flames. And that seemed to encourage imagination and memories. And there'd be real stories and imaginary stories. And the same thing going off to New Hampshire. We would go up in the winter time after Christmas, to a little farm house that had no electricity. So I think it's a time when it's dark, and somehow the imagination is more at home, I think, with mystery than with obviousness. It's more at home in the dark than it is with electric lights. There's something vaster about life than electric lights, let's us believe. And we're reminded of that in the dark, in the winter time.

WEAKLEY: It's a drawing-in time.

O'CALLAHAN: Yes, it's a drawing-in time.

WEAKLEY: I think, when I hear you say that. Those words come to my mind. And we are reflective.

O'CALLAHAN: Yes.

WEAKLEY: At that time of year.

CURWOOD: And what about the end of the cycle? 'Cause there is, you know, beneath all this, at the darkest time of year, there is this -- well, death is in the air, isn't it?

O'CALLAHAN: Yes, oh definitely. A death and a sense of rebirth, sense of hope, that the light will come again. That's kind of -- that's old for us, but I think it's deep inside us. You know, will the light ever come again when the shortest day comes? And then there is always the hope that it will and there will be rebirth and there will be newness. And that awakens something deep. You know, stories essentially are very, very deep. They come from the mystery within us.

WEAKLEY: And the stories that last are all stories of hope. A story won't last if it's hopeless.

O'CALLAHAN: That's true.

WEAKLEY: Nobody tells that story again.

O'CALLAHAN: That's true.

WEAKLEY: Yeah.

O'CALLAHAN: Yeah. You can write those stories but you can't tell them.

WEAKLEY: Right.

O'CALLAHAN: Somehow the breath and the presence has to touch hope. It's very mysterious about this form.

CURWOOD: Jay, I wanted to ask you. Stories help us understand things, right?

O'CALLAHAN: Mmm. Mmm. Let me mention one, briefly. The story of Einstein in November, when it was cold in Berlin, sitting up late at night, writing equations on the back of an envelope. And then staring at the envelope, and it couldn't be right. Because if it was right, then the whole story had to be changed. If it was right, the universe was moving, expanding. But everybody knew the story, it wasn't expanding. So he fudged the equation, because he couldn't quite believe it. And a couple of years later, when his fudged equation was out, a Russian physicist mathematician looked at this and said, "My gosh, if he just shifted this it would mean the universe is expanding! I've got to tell him this!" And Einstein wouldn't believe it until he went and he looked through the telescope, it was Hubble, and saw the universe was expanding. He said it was the biggest mistake of his life. Because he was caught in the story there, and he had changed the whole story for all of us. I love that story.

CURWOOD: Tom?

WEAKLEY: Well, I'm not a scientist. I don't think in terms of science. But when you talk about explaining things and the hows and whys of things, you know, Vermont is thought of as a very taciturn state. The people aren't receiving, receptive, of new people. And that's just not true. And we have stories about that right in my own home town, that's still told a century after the Civil War. Told about events there. And we're reminded that Vermont lost more men in the Civil War per capita than any state in the Union. Vermont was the first state to outlaw slavery. So, those things we are reminded about, when people say, "Well, God, how standoffish Vermonters are."

CURWOOD: Mmm. So you must have a story for us --

WEAKLEY: As a matter of fact, yes. Right. This is a story that was recorded by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, a great American novelist and citizen of Arlington. She tells it about her great grandmother, whose name was Almera Holly Canfield. And the Hollies and the Canfields are still very much a part of Arlington. And Almera Holly Canfield was a small but feisty old woman. She was a force to be reckoned with in town and was somebody very big in the hierarchy of the St. James Episcopal Church, which was right across the street from her home.

Well, it came to her attention at some point that there was a woman living up in Sangate, which is just the next town over, and high in the hills, that was referred to as a dark woman. And she never came into town. She did, I think, once, and she had such a reaction -- Vermont is the whitest state in the whole Union, remains so to this day -- that she never came into town again. Well, this was terrible for Mrs. Canfield. And so her great grandmother said, "Well, I'm going to do something about that." She found out that the woman was Indian or at least had some Indian blood in her. So she did have a darker skin. And everybody said, "Don't bother her. She's shy. She's like a deer. If you go to her house, she'll run. And she'll run inside the house."

"I don't care," she said. "I'm going to try."

So she had, it was coming on to Christmas. And she had her nephew get the sleigh, just a small, like a 2-man buggy on runners. And she went up there to, up Sandgate Road. And as she got closer she could see this woman was out in her yard, that she'd shoveled the path all along where the clothesline was. And she was hanging up the wash. Before that sleigh came to a stop, this old lady, grandma Almera Holly Canfield was out of that sleigh and over there with that woman, helping her hang up wash. And saying to her, through a mouth full of clothespins, she was saying, "Oh my! Don't you get this? How do you get this wash so white? Do you put salt in your soap?" And she got this woman talking and the next thing they knew they were in the kitchen and they were sitting there and mending hose, and shelling beans or something.

And she was talking to the woman about, was she planning to come to church for Christmas? Woman said, "No." She said, "I don't have anything decent to wear." So grandma Holly Canfield says, "Well, let me see your church coat." So the woman comes out with a big black coat, you know, from floor to ceiling, coat like everybody wore in those days. She said, "Well, your coat's just as good as mine, every bit." She said, "Well," then the woman said, "well, I don't have anybody to go with, and I feel kind of shy about going by myself." So our great grandmother said, "Well then, that's all settled." She says, "You come down to my house. I live right across the street from the church. You come to my house on Christmas Day, and we'll all go to church together. I'll be out on the porch with my daughter and granddaughter."

Well come Christmas Day, into town comes the big old lumbering sleigh, the farm sleigh, with the man, his name was Thompson, and this woman, his wife. And she got off there into that marble mounting block, and stepped off and started up toward the porch where these 3 women stood. Now, it was Dorothy Canfield's aunt who tells the rest of the story; she was a little girl then. And she said: This woman started up the walk toward us. And we couldn't believe what we were seeing. Sure, she had on her long black coat. But over the coat, because she was a farm woman who thought when you dressed up, what you did was put on a fresh apron, on top of the coat she wore a bright gingham blue and white starched apron. Well, she said, my mother and I stood there. We could hardly contain ourselves. We were having to put our hands up to our mouth, when we could feel, on the back of our necks, we could feel the iron grip of great grandmother Almera Holly Canfield. And first thing we knew, she was turning us around, back through the door of the house, and she called over her shoulder, and she said, "Now, wouldn't you just know it? The girls and I have forgotten to put on our aprons!"

She took us into the house. She rummaged around for the brightest-colored aprons she could find. We all put them on, over our black coats, marched across that muddy street to St. James Church, aproned from chin to ankle, and went into the church. And by now, of course, the church was filling with people. They walked down to the Canfield pew, which was right down front. and as they went down the aisle with these bright garbs on, great grandmother was looking in the eye, right and left as she went by each pew, frowning, defying people to say or laugh at their procession as they came down.

When the service was over, the rector greeted Mrs. Thompson at the door. And he said, "Mrs. Thompson, it's so good to have you worship with us today. I hope you'll come back." And Dorothy Canfield Fisher said: she did. She came back every day, the rest of her life, that she was up to it. But never again wearing her apron. Because in the ensuing week, great grandmother Almera Holly Canfield let it slip that it wasn't always necessary to wear your apron to church.

(Curwood laughs)

O'CALLAHAN: What a beautiful story.

CURWOOD: Well, gentlemen, I want to thank you both for taking this time with us. In this storytelling season.

O'CALLAHAN: Thank you. It was a delight, Steve.

WEAKLEY: Yes, thanks, Steve.

CURWOOD: Tom Weakley and Jay O'Callahan, thank you so much.

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CURWOOD: Today's stories were produced by Jesse Wegman and David Winickoff. Jay O'Callahan's recording, "The Spirit of the Great Auk," is available on cassette from Artana Productions. And Tom Weakley's award-winning "Harry and the Texaco Boys" is also available on cassette from Highland Publications. Check out our Web page at www.livingonearth.org for details.

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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our production staff includes Jesse Wegman, George Homsy, Terry FitzPatrick, Liz Lempert, Daniel Grossman, and Miriam Landman, along with Roberta de Avila, Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Bree Horwitz, and Julia Madeson. We had help this week from David Winickoff, Alexandra Davidson, Stephanie Pindyck, and Laura Colbert. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Peter Thomson heads our Western Bureau. Our senior editor is Joyce Hackel, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. And thanks for listening.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

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