• picture
  • picture
PRI's Environmental News Magazine

January 1, 1999

Air Date: January 1, 1999

SEGMENTS

Grizzly Politics / Jyl Hoyt

In Idaho, scientists and citizens are monitoring the state of the local grizzly bear population. Jyl Hoyt reports from member station K-B-S-U in Boise. (08:10)

LOE Garden Spot on Winter Seed Starting

It's the heart of winter, and Living On Earth’s resident gardening expert Michael Weishan says this is a good time to think about fresh flowers and vegetables by getting seeds going right now. And, he adds, it's easier than you might think with his tips on starting your own plants from seed. (06:10)

Toboggan Delight / Bob Carty

For turning the chills of winter into the thrills of sliding, some folks head to their local toboggan hill where the action is. And that's where producer Bob Carty went, to a little run near his home in Ottawa, Canada. There he found that while the means of going from top to bottom have changed, the fun and fear have not. He sent us this sound portrait. (05:00)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about... Political animals. (01:30)

An Afternoon with Pete Seeger

Renowned for his combination of music and social activism, folk music legend Pete Seeger explains to Steve Curwood that it was Rachel Carson's book 'Silent Spring' that really got him thinking and active on environmental matters. In 1969, with the help of other musicians and activists, Pete Seeger built a sloop he christened the Clearwater, because that was his intention: to clear the waters of the Hudson River of pollution and garbage. Pete Seeger lives on the Hudson, in a small, quiet town called Beacon, about an hour north of New York City and just 30 miles from where he was born. For decades, he and his neighbors have met on the rivers' banks, at the Sloop Club to socialize and organize over potluck suppers. He asked Living On Earth to meet him there, where it’s his turn to set up for this month’s gathering. (25:30)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Jyl Hoyt, Bob Carty
GUESTS: Michael Weishan, Pete Seeger

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

The Clinton Administration says the Endangered Species Act is working so well that it'll soon stop dropping some animals off the protected list. Grizzly bears are among the recovered species slated for delisting.

SERVHEEN: The grizzly bear situation in Yellowstone is one of the greatest conservation success stories of the 20th century, certainly one of the best ones under the Endangered Species Act.

CURWOOD: But others say the government is moving too fast, too soon, ignoring science for political gain.

HONNALD: The Federal agencies want to use the grizzly bear as a success story, and they care more about the public perception of whether things are going well than about the hard reality out on the ground of: are bears doing well or not?

CURWOOD: The plight of the grizzly, some downhill winter fun, and seed saving for the spring. All that and more this week on Living on Earth, but first this hour's news.

Back to top

(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

Grizzly Politics

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In the long-running battles over the Endangered Species Act, politics has always been at least as important as preservation, and it's no different today. Congress is considering major changes to the law, and the Clinton Administration is responding by moving to take a number of species off the Endangered Species List. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt says the goal is to show that the law works, as well as to squelch critics who contend that once a critter goes on the list it never comes off. Secretary Babbitt's delisting, as it's called, starts with a couple of dozen high-profile species, including the bald eagle, the gray wolf, and other so-called recovery success stories. One such story is set in Yellowstone National Park, where the grizzly bear could get delisted as early as next summer. But many scientists who study grizzlies in Yellowstone say that's a risky move. Jyl Hoyt from member station KBSU in Boise explains in this encore report.

(Clanking sounds)

HOYT: On the northern edge of Yellowstone National Park, a group of scientists and activists grab binoculars and spotting scopes and set out to look for grizzly bears.

SERVHEEN: Well, there is a sow and a couple of cubs working this area back here. We'll see if we can get on her.

HOYT: Back in 1975, when Federal scientists put the grizzly on the Endangered Species list, they thought the huge bear was going extinct. But Chris Servheen, who leads the government's recovery team, says the picture has changed dramatically.

SERVHEEN: We see the population increasing at 4%. We see bears in places we haven't seen them in 50 years. We see bears south of Jackson, Wyoming, that we never thought we would see.

HOYT: Mr. Servheen and his team, using statistical models, estimate there are now 400 to 500 grizzlies in the Yellowstone ecosystem.

SERVHEEN: The grizzly bear situation in Yellowstone is one of the greatest conservation success stories of the 20th century, certainly one of the best ones under the Endangered Species Act.

HOYT: It's such a success story that the Federal Government is now thinking of taking the grizzly bear off the Endangered Species list. But many independent scientists say that idea is premature. Pioneer grizzly researcher Lance Craighead believes there are perhaps a third fewer grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem than the government estimate, and barely more than when the bear was first protected.

CRAIGHEAD: Statistically it's not a significant increase. And so to talk about delisting them, without taking into account what's happening to their habitat, is really not supported by the facts.

HOYT: Mr. Craighead says the status of the bears' habitat and food supply is at least as important as their numbers.

(River water splashes)

HOYT: The 9,500 square-mile Yellowstone ecosystem is made up of Yellowstone and Teton National Parks and 6 national forests in 3 states: Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.

(Splashing continues)

HOYT: Icy rivers cascade through the rich volcanic soils of the Yellowstone Plateau, creating nutritious grasses for elk and bison. These ungulates, as well as numerous plants, are food for Yellowstone grizzlies. When there are plenty of such foods, as there were during the 1980s, their populations rise, says Dave Matteson, a biologist with the US Geological Survey. But Mr. Matteson says the bison population is in trouble. Recent conflicts with local ranchers are forcing wildlife managers to drastically thin the herd.

MATTESON: We're standing to lose a good share of our bison because of a management plan that proposes to halve the herd and keep it that way.

(Footfalls)

HOYT: Mr. Matteson makes his way up a hill, checking for bear sign, and searching for plants that bears like to eat. He kneels down and digs up a spring beauty, a favorite bear food. Plants like these are still abundant here, but they're not the high-nutrition items grizzlies need most. And like the bison, other big ticket foods here are in trouble.

MATTESON: We're standing to lose a good share of the cutthroat trout because of lake trout that were unintentionally introduced into the lake.

HOYT: Mr. Matteson says the native trout swim up shallow streams where bears can catch them. But the introduced fish stay deep in Yellowstone Lake. And there are other problems.

MATTESON: Very likely we'll lose most of the white bark pine. Most of the army cutworm maws that the bears use on the eastern part of the ecosystem, both really important foods, due to global climate warming.

HOYT: Perhaps the biggest threat to bears here is roads: for oil and gas development, for logging, for subdivisions.

(An engine revs up, soil moves)

HOYT: Roads like this one being built north of the park are gobbling up grizzly bear habitat fast. Louisa Wilcox with Sierra Club's Grizzly Bear Ecosystem Project says if the 20 counties surrounding Yellowstone Park were taken together, it would be the fastest-growing state in the nation.

WILCOX: And what was once open space along the Madison, the Yellowstone, the Gallatin Rivers are filling up with subdivisions, with people moving into this area to get a piece of Paradise. And that in the long run is going to be a continued problem for grizzly bears. Ninety percent of the grizzly bears now that die, die as a result of conflicts that occur outside Yellowstone Park.

(Footfalls, voices)

HOYT: The group of bear-watchers moves from one hill in Yellowstone to another, seeing wolves, bison, elk, but still no bears. Carnivore ecologist Jim Halfpenny of the Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research says the importance of a healthy population of grizzlies in Yellowstone goes far beyond the bears themselves.

HALFPENNY: Anything we can do to benefit the grizzly bear is probably going to benefit a host of other species. If we provide good habitat for grizzly, that's providing good habitat for black bear, for wolves, for deer, for elk.

HOYT: Critics say that talk about delisting the grizzlies is being dictated by politics, not science. The Endangered Species Act is under heavy pressure from Congress. So Doug Honnald of the Earth Justice Legal Defense Fund says wildlife managers are scrambling to find ways to defend the law.

HONNALD: The Federal agencies want to use the grizzly bear as a success story, and they care more about the public perception of whether things are going well than about the hard reality out on the ground of: are bears doing well or not?

HOYT: If the government proposes this winter to take Yellowstone grizzly bears off the endangered species list, and most analysts say it will, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming would manage the bears. These states have been antagonistic to grizzlies, and many environmentalists fear they won't be committed to maintaining a healthy population with enough rich habitat. But Chris Servheen of the US Fish and Wildlife Service says, if the bears' future is in doubt the government will put them back on the Endangered Species list.

SERVHEEN: We are committed to be adaptive managers. That means that as new problems arise, as new threats come about, as we learn new things, we will change our management and respond to those to meet the needs of the bear.

MAN: Got to get some cubs coming in here.

WOMAN: She's a little darling.

(Various voices)

MAN: A little bit this side of the edge.

HOYT: In Yellowstone Park's Lamar Valley, the bear-watchers finally get what they came for. The group ignores the sun setting into a dazzling golden sky, and the full moon rising, because finally a grizzly bear walks into view.

MAN: Yep. See her moving there.

WOMAN: Oh yeah, there she is.

(Another woman laughs)

MAN 2: Oh, wow.

MAN 3: Oh, beautiful.

HOYT: Huddled around a spotting scope, these activists say they'll continue to fight any move to delist the Yellowstone grizzlies, while the future of the bear's habitat remains uncertain. For Living on Earth, I'm Jyl Hoyt in Yellowstone National Park.

Back to top

CURWOOD: It's the dead of winter here in the northern climes, and our gardener says that's just the time to think about fresh flowers and vegetables you can grow from seed. It's easier than you might think. That's ahead right here on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

LOE Garden Spot on Winter Seed Starting

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's practically the dead of winter, and yes, it is time to talk about gardening. So with me is Michael Weishan, editor of Traditional Gardening and Living on Earth's gardening expert. Hi, Michael.

WEISHAN: Hi, Steve, how are you?

CURWOOD: Now this week, we're going to do something different, Michael. Instead of spending the afternoon tromping outside your beautiful place here, we're inside your greenhouse. And I've got to say that when I came out here today, that someone remarked, "Hey, what are you thinking about gardening this time of year for?"

WEISHAN: Well it's actually a terrific time to start thinking about the next year. And if you're interested at all in planting seeds and growing your own, now's the time to start.

CURWOOD: Why start seeds indoors? I mean, isn't it easier just to go to the store and get them already grown? You know they're there, they're big and tall and strong and (makes popping sound) just pop them in the ground?

WEISHAN: Well, it's easier, but it's also much more expensive, and you get a much smaller selection of material to grow. Here's one, for instance, I started already. It's called milk thistle.

CURWOOD: It looks like a bit of abstract art, the way it has these big, broad, white veins on it.

WEISHAN: Yeah, it's amazing. And of course it also flowers later in the year, appropriately thistle-like flower, and it makes a terrific addition to the garden. Now, you'll never find this at your standard nursery.

CURWOOD: Now, what do you need to do this?

WEISHAN: Not a lot. Essentially, you need some type of container, and here we're using a tray, it's about 2 inches deep. But you could really use anything. It's somewhat important that the container be initially somewhat sterile. Not antiseptically clean, but not home to fungus or other potential diseases.

CURWOOD: What do you put in this?

WEISHAN: Inside here we have what looks like soil, but it's actually called soilless mix. Essentially, it's a mixture of vermiculite and peat moss or sometimes, even sphagnum. Anything that does not have a lot of soil bacteria in it. If you start seeds in regular sort of garden soil, chances are they might rot or get some diseases like dampening off, for instance, which kills the seeds. (Containers clank) Of course, here in the greenhouse we have rather large containers of it (huffs amidst moving objects), and we'll use it quite a bit, and we'll -- oop! -- trying not to pull down all the pots here. All right. So we're going to bring this over, and essentially you're just going to reach in and here, probably take a scooper here and just sort of fill that up.

(Scooping sounds)

CURWOOD: Okay.

WEISHAN: Now, what you want to do, now, is sort of press this down so that the mix is somewhat compacted.

CURWOOD: Mm hm.

WEISHAN: So that there's not a lot of air in it. And it's really important to soak these things down well. Most people, and I certainly started this way as well, would plant the seeds and then water. And what happens is you float half the seeds to the surface or down into the crevices or other places where you don't want them to be. So what we're going to do, we're going to take this right over to the water here, or --

(Splashing sounds)

CURWOOD: Okay.

WEISHAN: Now, the next step is generally to take either your hand or a piece of an old potsherd or piece of wood, and sort of just smush it down there. So that everything is compacted once again to make sure we have a fairly flat planting surface.

(Patting, compacting sounds)

WEISHAN: Of course, we wait until the water has fully drained out of this, so that it's not, you know, terribly squishy still. We're going to plant a flat of parsley and get it started for the next year, because now's the time to do that.

CURWOOD: All right.

WEISHAN: Now, the general rule for seed planting is, you want to bury the seed about half again as deep as its diameter. In other words, if you have a large seed, say, half a centimeter, you want to plant it just a quarter centimeter deep. A little seed like that, which is like the size of the top of a pin, essentially can be scattered on the soil and very lightly covered.

CURWOOD: Uh huh.

WEISHAN: That's why we pre-water this. The base is now wet, and now we can scatter the seeds on the surface.

(Seeds being scattered)

CURWOOD: It's rather like putting a little seasoning on something.

WEISHAN: Yes, it looks exactly like that. As I said, the key here is going to be to very lightly cover this thing. I'm just shaking the soil (shaking sounds) on top of our already watered base. And as you can see, we've covered this just minimally. Now we're going to just pat that down, and that's it. What I like to do is cover this so that it doesn't dry out right away, that's the other great reason people fail. And we use simple plastic covers that come made for the flats. You don't have to water much or do anything.

CURWOOD: Now, this is all very handy, Michael, if you have a greenhouse like the kind that we're standing in. But what if you, you know, live in an apartment or a regular house?

WEISHAN: Well, for instance, if you wanted just to grow a few of your own herbs, it would be very easy to do it just this way in a smaller container or pot, or just in a flower pot and cover it with a bit of Saran Wrap. Some plants do much better with what's called bottom heat.

CURWOOD: Mm hm.

WEISHAN: Parsley happens to be one of these. And we use actually a fairly elaborate system that keeps the seed bed at 70 degrees. But the average homeowner can use just a simple heating coil that they sell in most nurseries, and it's an inexpensive purchase. And you'll find that if you've tried growing seeds without bottom heat and it failed, that's probably the answer. It really is the key to success.

CURWOOD: And what about light? Do they need special light?

WEISHAN: No, not really, no special light. Sunlight will be fine. And if you don't have a sunny windowsill, fluorescent lights work just great.

CURWOOD: What's the timing for this? Here we are in New England. It's very cold, it's January. When should I be starting my seeds?

WEISHAN: It depends on your frost-free date, and everything works backward from that. So, if for instance you want to start tomatoes and the packets say start 8 to 10 weeks before your last frost date, in New England we would start around March, figuring our frost -free date's about May 15 or so. Obviously in the South, that occurs much sooner.

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

WEISHAN: It's been my pleasure.

CURWOOD: In addition to being Living on Earth's gardening expert, Michael Weishan is editor of Traditional Gardening. And if you have a question for Michael, you can reach him via our web site. The address is www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. And when you get there, click on the picture of the watering can.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Toboggan Delight

CURWOOD: For folks in the chilly climes, winter can mean more than slippery sidewalks, cranky cars, and runny noses. With a dusting of snow the neighborhood toboggan hill is ready for action. And that's where producer Bob Carty went: to a little run near his home in Ottawa, where he found that while the means of going from the top to the bottom of the summit have changed, the fear and fun have not. He sent us this sound portrait.

(Children yelling and screaming, whooshing down snow.)

MAN: (Laughing) Tobogganing is one of the many entertainments we have in Canada to get through the winter and have fun with this cold, white stuff that we have to slog through most days of the week.

(Children, breathless.)

CHILD: Push me! Push me!

WOMAN: You're going to go by yourself?

CHILD: Yes.

WOMAN: Ready?

CHILD: Yes.

WOMAN: Here you go! Whoo!

(Children and adults shout)

CHILD 1: The hardest part, like the top of the hill, there's like --

CHILD 2: Icy.

CHILD 1: Icy. So that's the hardest part.

WOMAN: Most of the kids are into the GTs. It's 3 skis and it's got a steering wheel. They start at $30 and they run up to $80. Personally I wouldn't try this. (Laughs) Too fast. For me.

(Children screaming and yelling)

MAN: My favorite was the sleigh with the runners, and the preferable posture for running this thing was head first. And it was great because when you're head first you're (laughs) a lot closer to the action, that's for sure. Even when you tumble, even when you overturn, as long as you're not hurt, the snow is very forgiving. (Laughs)

CHILD 1: It's best when you wipe out, I find.

CHILD 2: I don't think so. I don't find wiping out is very fun. What's fun for me is going as far as I can, going over jumps. Sometimes you aim for the bumps, sometimes they just come right out of the blue and you hit them.

(Children screaming. A knock.)

WOMAN: That's your plastic. Plastic toboggans, which are fairly inexpensive. Plastic goes over anything. Once they crack, though, they're gone.

(More yelling. A child yells, "Major wipe out!" Another yells, "Nice one!")

CHILD: Best ride I ever had was on this really big hill. Because we went down this hill and we went into that, to the water over there, like where there is ice. It was really fun.

(More yelling. A child yells, "Oh my God!")

MAN: As a kid you're always looking for a good tobogganing hill. Good judgment wasn't exercised in choosing the hills, so there were often trees or brick walls at the bottom of them or something like that. The idea is to miss the trees, but we weren't all that successful in doing that. Toboggans seem to have homing devices in them that aim for the nearest trees.

(More yelling. One child is crying. Another says, "Told you." A man says, "Hold on, hold on." More crying and screaming. Man: "It's okay, it's my fault." Woman: "You're okay.")

MAN: I think parents want safety and kids want excitement, right? So there's a constant tension between those 2 factors.

MAN 2: Tuck in your feet, put on your tooks, here we go! Oh yeah! I feel the need, the need for speed! (Whooshing through snow)

MAN 3: To this day my buddies and I still will get dressed up late at night, drag our stuff out to the hill... well, at this point in life we can drive to the hill. And we'll go tobogganing down the hill hooting like we were 6 years old. So yeah, it's still a rush for me.

MAN 4: Whoo! (Laughs) Party line!

MAN 5: We're alive! (Laughs maniacally)

WOMAN: Crazy carpets, they slide very quickly. You can throw them in the back of your trunk with no problem. Two-forty-nine to $3. Then you're going into your steel toboggans (bangs on steel), and finally we have our wooden toboggans that come in various sizes. They do still buy them but they're very expensive compared to your plastic. It's $28.99 up to $45. That's what I had when I -- that's all they had when I was young. (Laughs) Just the wooden toboggans. They didn't have the plastic like they have today. When I see wooden toboggans I think it's winter. There's nothing like cuddling up on a back of a toboggan with your kid in front of you. (A child yells; whooshing through snow; children yelling and laughing)

CURWOOD: Our sound portrait of winter fun was produced by Bob Carty.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

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; Jennifer and Ted Stanley, and Church and Dwight, a tradition of environmental responsibility: the makers of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, the standard of purity.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Some time well spent with America's troubadour. Music and reflections from Pete Seeger are just ahead. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

SECOND HALF HOUR

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Stonyfield Farm Yogurt: if the planet's health isn't our business, whose is it? Our series on estuaries was funded by a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration through the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management.

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: This week's swearing-in of the 106th Congress comes at a time of partisan battles between the 2 major herds of political animals: the donkeys and the elephants. The creature caricatures both come from the pen of political cartoonist Thomas Nast. Mr. Nast first represented the Democrats as donkeys in 1870 in a Harper's Weekly cartoon. Perhaps he'd been inspired while thumbing through a version of Webster's Dictionary. It defines a donkey first off as a domesticated ass. The second meaning: a person regarded as stupid, foolish, or obstinate. Four years later Mr. Nast used the elephant to represent the Republicans. Webster's describes the elephant as huge and thick-skinned. If the beasts themselves were to vote a straight party line, the nation would be overwhelmingly run by Democrats, since there are an estimated 140,000 donkeys in the US and only 600 elephants. And for this week that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

(Audience clapping, a banjo in the background)

An Afternoon with Pete Seeger

SEEGER: (Singing) I've lived all my life in this country. I love every flower and tree. I expect to live here till I'm 90. It's the nukes that must go and not me.

EVERYONE: (Singing) It's the nukes that must go and not me. The nukes that must go and not me. I expect to live here till I'm 90. It's the nukes that must go and not me.

CURWOOD: That's Pete Seeger leading a crowd in an anti-nuclear song at a Harvard University gathering back in 1980. For some in the audience this may be the apex of their protest days. For Pete Seeger, it's another night on the town as the nation's troubadour of conscience. America's tuning fork, some call him. For more than half a century, Pete Seeger has been leading people throughout the world in song, and in the process he's become a walking history of folk music and social activism. In the 1930s and '40s, you'd find him and his famous banjo on the union picket line.

SEEGER: (Strumming banjo) Now you want higher wages, let me tell you what to do. Got to talk to the workers in the shop with you. You got to build you a union, got to make it strong. But if you all stick together, boys, 'twon't be long. You get shorter hours. Better working conditions. Vacations with pay, take the kids to the seashore...

CURWOOD: Singing songs with outspoken political views led Pete Seeger in 1955 to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Congress wanted him to testify about alleged Communist affiliations. Name names, it was called. Mr. Seeger refused, was ordered to jail, and blacklisted. An appeals court blocked his prison term, and Pete Seeger kept on singing. In the 1960s it was songs for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam.

SEEGER: (Singing) The sergeant said, "Sir, are you sure this is the best way back to the base?" "Sergeant go on, I forded this river about a mile above this place. It'll be a little soggy but just keep sloggin', we'll soon be on dry ground. We were waist deep in the big muddy, the big fool says to push on...

CURWOOD: And ever since then it's been the environment. In 1969, with the help of other musicians and activists, Pete Seeger built a sloop he christened the Clearwater, because that was his intention: to clear the waters of the Hudson River of pollution and garbage. Pete Seeger lives on the Hudson, in a small quiet town called Beacon, about an hour north of New York City, and just 30 miles from where he was born. For decades, he and his neighbors have met on the river's banks at the Sloop Club to socialize and organize over potluck suppers. He's asked us to meet him there, where it's his turn to set up for this month's gathering.

A bright red pickup truck loaded with logs and plywood pulls up. A tall, wiry man with a white beard and glasses jumps out.

(Door shutting)

SEEGER: Hope you haven't been waiting too long.

CURWOOD: Nope, how are you?

Pete Seeger has lived 8 decades, but he moves with the ease and energy of someone who still has a lot to do.

(To Seeger) Mr. Seeger, you got here a Ford Ranger, except it didn't make much noise when you pulled up.

SEEGER: I bought it for $8,000. A schoolteacher who teaches electricity wanted to learn more about electric cars, so he made his own electric car. And he put into it a 28-horsepower electric motor, and 20 6-volt batteries.

CURWOOD: Can I see under the hood?

SEEGER: Sure.

(Hood opens)

SEEGER: Not much here.

CURWOOD: Nope. Except a sign that says, "Caution, wear rubber gloves. You could be electrocuted." (Laughs)

SEEGER: Right. There's like 400 amps. For me it's perfect. I live on a very steep mountainside and I'm always carrying rocks and logs, and with a low range and 4-wheel drive I can inch up the steepest kind of slope with a ton of logs. It can go a foot a minute if I want to go that slowly, because I just feed in more or less power with the accelerator. I'd be burning out the clutch if I was using a regular gasoline car.

CURWOOD: Let's go over here by the -- your docks here out of the water and we can chat a bit. What a place for a sunset, huh?

(Water lapping on shore)

SEEGER: This waterfront was a tangle of weeds, and the river was like an open sewer 30 years ago when the Clearwater started. And little by little it's gotten better. That park over there was our big victory. We petitioned and petitioned and people laughed at us, but by gosh the petitions finally had an effect. And a little city money and a lot of Federal and state money -- a million dollars to make a park out of 7 and a half acres of garbage.

CURWOOD: Ah hah. Pete Seeger, how'd you get involved in environmental concerns?

SEEGER: It was Rachel Carson's famous book "Silent Spring." I read it in the New Yorker, in installments. Up to then I'd thought the main job to do is help the meek inherit the Earth. And I still, that's a job that's got to be done. But I realized if we didn't do something soon, what the meek would inherit would be a pretty poisonous place to live. And so I made almost 180-degree turn, started reading books like "The Population Bomb" by Paul Erlich, or "The Poverty of Power" by Barry Commoner. I'm a readaholic. And I was reading a book about the sailboats that sailed here, oh, all during the 19th century. Alexander Hamilton wrote one of the Federalist papers on his way to Poughkeepsie in a sloop, where they were arguing whether or not to sign the Constitution idea and agree to it. Well, I write a letter to my friend: wouldn't it be great to build a replica of one of these? Probably cost $100,000. Nobody we know has that money, but if we got 1,000 people together we could all chip in. Maybe we could hire a skilled captain to see it's run safely and the rest of us could volunteer. And 3 years later the sloop Clearwater was built up in Maine, and I helped sail it down with Don McLean and a batch of other singers. And now it takes school kids out. It's not a rich man's cruise boat. Two or 3 times a day it takes groups of 50 school kids out, teaches them what makes rivers dirty and what's got to be done to clean them up. Of course, people say what can a sailboat do? It can't do much except bring people together. But when people come together, that's when miracles happen, right?

CURWOOD: What do you think it's done for the river?

SEEGER: It drew attention to it in such a friendly way that people couldn't help getting attracted. In the little town of Cold Spring south of here, there were some very conservative people who thought it was a Communist, treasonous project, because I was involved with it.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Aren't you Communist, Pete Seeger? (Laughs)

SEEGER: I told people at age 7 I became a Communist when I read about American Indians. And anthropologists, that's the term they use for the way our ancestors lived anywhere in the world. The men hunted, the women gathered berries and dug for roots and carried babies on their back. And somebody killed something to eat, the meat was shared. That's communism. I admit, it seems romantic to want to go back to that, but I really do believe that if there is a world here, if there's a human race here in 100 years, we will have learned how to share again.

CURWOOD: Indeed.

SEEGER: Well, down in this little town, a man came down to see the Clearwater, and he beckoned to me. He said, "Seeger, can I talk to you a minute?" I said, "Sure." He said, "I don't want you to think I agree with you, not one tenth of one percent, but that sure is a beautiful boat." He couldn't take his eyes off it. (Curwood laughs) Hundred-and-six foot tall the mast goes up. I call it a symphony of curves. There are hardly any straight lines on a sailboat and very few right angles. Curves, curves.

(Singing while playing guitar) Sailing down my golden river. Sun and water all my own. Yet I was never alone. Sun and water are all life givers. I'll have them where'er I roam. And I was not far from home.

That was the first Hudson River song I wrote. The Clearwater had not been built. I hadn't even thought of the idea. I was sailing a little plastic boat and there I looked at the water beneath me. There was lumps of this and that floating by with the toilet paper. And the phrase of John Kenneth Galbraith came to mind: Private affluence, public squalor. I had money to buy this little plastic boat. We had money to go to the moon but didn't have money to keep the rivers clean. And later on, I was sailing by myself and I saw the sun go down. The sky turned from yellow to pink to purple to midnight blue. And I had "Sailing down my golden river, sun and water all my own. But I was never alone..." (Fade to singing and guitar)

CURWOOD: Let's talk about some other songs. Garbage.

SEEGER: This was written by a young fellow named Bill Steele, who was for years been the head of the folk song club up in Ithaca, New York. But he wrote it in San Francisco when he was visiting there, and it became an underground hit. There must be thousands of people all around the country who know this song and sing it. I added a verse. A friend of mine had written the first part of the verse: (Sings) In Mr. Thompson's factory they're making plastic Christmas trees. Complete with silver tinsel and a geodesic stand. The plastic's mixed in giant vats from some conglomeration that's been piped from deep within the earth or strip-mined from the land.

Well then he went on to say and so the water gets dirty in Long Island Sound, but I changed the words: (Sings) And if you question anything they say why don't you see? It's absolutely needed for the economy. Garbage, garbage, garbage, their stocks and their bonds, all garbage. What will they do when their system goes to smash? There's no value to their cash. There's no money to be made. But there's a world to be repaid. Their kids will read in history books about financiers and other crooks, and feudalism and slavery and nukes and all their knavery. To history's dustbin they're consigned along with many other kinds of garbage, garbage, garbage...

You know, I drew blood with that verse? I sang it on the Today Show once, and Fortune magazine says, "Esso was sponsoring that program. Do they know what songs are being sung with their money?" (Curwood laughs) And they quoted the verse I'd sung. I don't necessarily like to draw blood. I'd rather persuade people to laugh and eventually agree that maybe I've got a little right on this side. Incidentally, the only way I got it on the Today Show was by -- I have to confess -- a little bit of devious preparation. I knew that NBC wouldn't be happy about me singing it. I come in at 6:30 in the morning; they say, "Pete, what are you going to sing?" I said, "Well, I've got a cheerful little banjo tune; I've got something else a little more serious." "Well, let's hear them." Played the banjo tune. "Fine, what's the other?" I sang Garbage. They say, "Well, Pete, it's a little early in the morning. You got something else?" I was prepared. I sang (Sings): Walking down death row...

They say, "Pete, you got something else?"

(Sings) If a revolution comes to my country...

Well, Pete, I guess we better stick with Garbage. (Curwood laughs) The whole studio broke up: the cameraman, the prop man: yes, we'll stick with Garbage!

(Sings): Mr. Thompson starts his Cadillac, winds it down the freeway track, leaving friends and neighbors in a hydrocarbon haze. He's joined by lots of smaller cars all sending gases to the stars, there to form a seething cloud that hangs for 30 days. And the sun blinks down into it with an ultraviolet tongue, turns it into smog, then it settles in our lungs. Oh! Garbage, garbage garbage... We're filling up the sky with garbage. What will we do when there's nothing left to breathe but garbage?...

CURWOOD: You've spent a lot of time with Woody Guthrie. I'm thinking of Woody Guthrie's song Roll On Columbia, in which he speaks in such glowing terms of the dams that are there.

SEEGER: Yeah. I think if Woody was around now, he would find some funny song. He was wonderful at combining tragedy and humor, all in one song. He did have a funny verse: Them salmon fish are pretty shrewd. They've got politicians, too. Run every 4 years. (Curwood laughs)

CURWOOD: What's the most important thing when it comes to the environment?

SEEGER: I tell people, work in your local community. The world's going to be saved by people who fight for their homes. Now, there may be glamorous places to go to, far across the oceans on, but really the world's going to be saved by people who fight for their homes.

CURWOOD: Is there a song that you'd like to talk about in connection with, you know, working in your own community, working in your town, to make the environment better?

SEEGER: Well, a lot of songs are about it. (Sings) Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make this garden grow. It's the Garden Song, written by a fellow up in the state of Maine, and Arlo Guthrie and I and lots of others have recorded it. I've also written a little song I sing on the general subject of praying, because I think church people and non-church people should find ways to get together. It was just about a year ago, a little over a year ago, I was out getting wood to start the morning fire. We heat our house with wood. And I look up and see the sun poking itself up over the mountain. (Sings) Early in the morning, I first see the sun, I'll say a little prayer for the world. Hope all the little children live a long, long time. Every little boy and little girl. Hope they'll learn to laugh at the way some precious old words seem to change, 'cause that's what life is all about: to arrange and rearrange and rearrange. And I have a little chorus: (sings) Oh, whee, oh why, to rearrange and rearrange and rearrange. Oh whee, oh why, to rearrange and rearrange and rearrange. You get the audience singing it.

CURWOOD: Come on, you guys. (Laughs)

SEEGER: You'll have to help me out, next time. It's like a zipper song; anything nice that happens you can have a new verse. For me, it was ten and a half years ago, one A.M. our son in law Shabazz knocks on the door: "The baby's coming!" I said have you called the midwife? "Yes, yes, she's bringing two friends." Well, so we called up a couple friends. It was a party for three and a half hours; our daughter beamed like she was in heaven, and on occasion she'd let out a shriek and then beam some more. And after three and a half hours her firstborn, who was six years old at the time, says, "I see the head! I see the head!" (Sings) Heard the first yowl of a brand new baby, and I said a little prayer for the world. Hope all the little children live a long, long time, yes every little boy and little girl. (claps) Hope they'll learn to laugh at the way some precious old words do seem to change. 'Cause that's what life is all about: to arrange and rearrange and rearrange." Sing it with me.

BOTH: (Singing) Oh whee, oh why, to rearrange and rearrange and rearrange. Oh whee, oh why, to rearrange and rearrange and rearrange.

SEEGER: (Sings) Well, sometimes I wake in the middle of the night and rub my achin' old eyes. Is that a voice from inside my head, or does it come down from the skies? There's a time to laugh but there's a time to weep, a time to make a big change: wake up ya bum! The time has come to rearrange and rearrange and rearrange. Sing it again!

BOTH: (Singing) Oh whee, oh why, to rearrange and rearrange and rearrange. Oh whee, oh why, to rearrange and rearrange and rearrange. (Laughter)

SEEGER: I've tried to write lots of songs, but I have to admit that it's one thing to try and write a song and another thing to write one good enough for people to want to remember and sing. Woody Guthrie wrote 1,000 songs and there's maybe a dozen which will be widely sung. And a friend of mine had started a small record company, and he says, "Pete, would you be able to put out a record of some of your own songs?" I said, "My voice is gone, it's too wobbly, too raggedy. When I stand on a stage mainly what I do is get the audience singing; I accompany them. I line out the hymn, as they say in church. But he says, "What if I get other people to sing them?" I said, "Fine, if you can find them." Well by gosh, he got some awful well-known singers: Bruce Springsteen and Bonnie Raitt and Billy Bragg and Judy Collins and a whole lot of others, put out 2 CDs, mainly of songs that I wrote. And other songs like We Shall Overcome. All I did was make an arrangement of them.

SPRINGSTEEN: (Sings to musical accompaniment) Hey, we shall overcome. We shall overcome. We shall overcome some day. Darlin', here in my heart, yeah I do believe we shall overcome some day. Well, we'll walk hand in hand. We'll walk hand in hand...

SEEGER: That's an interesting story. Did you know that there's an old gospel song, quite well known, (sings and claps) "I'll overcome. I'll overcome. I'll overcome some day..." Well, 300 women were on strike in 1946. It was in winter and I guess on the picket line they probably had a barrel with a little fire in it, and people were warming their hands and singing old gospel songs to keep their courage up. And one woman, Lucille Simmons by name, loved this song, but she sang it, what they call long meter style. And she changed one word. "I'll" became now "we." And she sang, (Sings slowly) "We will overcome." Now church people know how to harmonize, and the basses get the low notes and the sopranos get the high notes, and you weave in and out. And a group of people can make beautiful music just improvising with each other. It became one of their favorite strike songs: we will overcome some day. Well, a white woman, a union organizer, Zilphia Horton by name, she learned it from the strikers, it became her favorite song. Anyway, I spread the song around the country, but I didn't have a good voice like that, those 2 women, so I gave it a banjo accompaniment -- omm, chinka oom, chinka oom chinka omm, chinka oom, chinka oom... I got audiences in town hall and others singing it, but it didn't really spread. Until 1960, a young friend of mine, Guy Carawan by name, had a workshop called Singing in the Movement. And some 70 young people from Texas to Florida to Virginia gathered at that little Highlander school and swapped songs for a weekend and made up new verses and so on. And when Guy taught them this song, they said, "Oh, Guy, you got a song here!" And Guy had started giving it a kind of rhythm, which now everybody knows. It's -- musicians call it 12/8 time, that is, 4 beats, but each 4 beat is divided up in 3 little beats -- one two three, one two three, one two three, one, two, three, four...

(Clapping and singing before and with an audience): We shall overcome. We shall overcome. We shall overcome some day. Oh, deep in my heart, I know that I do believe, oh we shall overcome, someday. We shall live in peace! We shall live in peace. We shall live in peace. We shall live in peace some day -- ohhh, deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome someday -- The whole wide world around!...

(To Curwood) Saving the world is not going to be easy. It's going to require huge arguments. People who call themselves environmentalists don't always agree. One says, "Don't have any dams," but along comes a man and says, "If you have a lot of small dams they won't do any damage, or not enough, and saves burning fossil fuels." Who knows what's going to happen? All I know is I wish I could live another 30 or 40 years, because some of the most exciting things are going to happen. When I meet people who say, "Oh, there's no hope, Peter, look at the things that are going wrong, and those stupid people in Bosnia, there are going to be things like that all around the world, where power-hungry people says 'I know how to handle this, just give me the bomb.' There's no hope." But I say to them, I said, "Did you think that our great Watergate president would leave office the way he did?" "No, I guess I didn't think that." I said, "Did you think that the Berlin Wall would come down so peacefully?" "No, I didn't think that would happen, yeah." I said, "Did you think Mandela would be president of South Africa?" "No, I didn't predict that." "Well, if you couldn't predict those three things, then don't be so confident that there's no hope." And I give them a bumper sticker. It says, "There's No Hope, But I May Be Wrong." (Curwood laughs)

(Seeger strums banjo)

CURWOOD: Pete Seeger, thanks so much for taking this time with us on Living on Earth today.

SEEGER: Thank you for inviting me.

CURWOOD: What's it say on your banjo here? It says --

SEEGER:"This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender." I hope.

(Strums guitar and sings): Well may the world go, the world go, the world go. Well may the world go when I'm far away. Well may the scales turn, the swimmers churn, the lovers burn. Peace may the generals learn when I'm far away. (Sings with others) Well may the world go, the world go, the world go. Well may the world go when I'm far away.

Back to top

 

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 the 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. Thanks for listening.

(Music up and under: Seeger singing: "Sweet may the fiddles sound, the banjo play, the old hoedown dancers swing round and round when I'm far away. (Singing with others) Well may the world go, the world go, the world go. Well may the world go, when I'm far away. Well may the world go, the world go, the world go. Well may the world go, when I'm far away." Banjo up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new economic approaches to advance environmental protection and human prosperity: www.wajones.org.

(Music up and under, Seeger singing: "Fresh may the breezes blow, clear may the streams flow, blue above, green below, when I'm far away. (Sings with others) Well may the world go, the world go, the world go. Well may the world go when I'm far away. Well may the world go, the world go, the world go. Well may the world go when I'm far away.")

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Newsletter
Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Major funding for Living on Earth is provided by the National Science Foundation.

Committed to healthy food, healthy people, a healthy planet, and healthy business.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live.

Kendeda Fund, furthering the values that contribute to a healthy planet.

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary hummingbird photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.