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

August 25, 2000

Air Date: August 25, 2000


Sea Sounds / Eileen Bolinsky

The world beneath the sea is filled with mysterious sounds - from grunts and crackles and croaks to bleeping ship sonar and the roar of jet skis. "Sounds of the Sea," an exhibit at the New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts, uncovers some of the sound-rich secrets of the underwater world. Living On Earth’s Eileen Bolinsky joined Aquarium Director of Education Billy Spitzer for a tour. (05:25)

City Trees

The century-old trees that grace many of our country's urban centers are under assault. Development, with its encroaching asphalt, is an obvious danger. But so are more urban threats, like tail pipe exhaust, diverted water flows, and declining city budgets for tree maintenance. Host Steve Curwood talks with Boston Globe environmental correspondent Scott Allen. (06:15)

Technology Update / Cynthia Graber

Cynthia Graber reports on how sound waves can keep our food cold. (00:59)

Natural Capitalism

Paul Hawken joins host Steve Curwood to talk about “Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution,” the book he co-authored along with Amory and Hunter Lovins. The book offers guidelines on a sustainable economy which does not waste people or resources. (07:55)

The Living on EArth Almanac

This week, facts about Sealab II. Thirty-five years ago, 10 aquanauts took up residence in a research vessel fixed 205 feet beneath the ocean waves off La Jolla, California. (01:30)

Health Update / Diane Toomey

Diane Toomey reports on a study done in Africa where researchers have discovered why malaria is a significant threat to the health of newborns. (00:59)

The Point of No Return, Part III: Salmon Saga / Sandy Tolan

The story of one salmon, and its journey from the high mountain streams of the northwest to the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean and back again, as told by producer Sandy Tolan, with original music by Dorothy Wang. It's the final installment in our series "The Point of No Return: Salmon and Society in the Pacific Northwest.” (25:00)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Sandy Tolan
UPDATES: Cynthia Graber, Diane Toomey
GUESTS: Billy Spitzer, Scott Allen, Paul Hawken

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

CURWOOD: There's an economic revolution going on and no, it's not built around the Internet. It's called natural capitalism, and it's built around natural systems.

HAWKEN: We have spiders, you know, that create silk, you know. They're stronger than Kevlar, and they don't use boiling vats of sulfuric acid. But they just do it with digested crickets and flies.

CURWOOD: Also...

(Sea sounds)

CURWOOD: The sounds of the sea.

SPITZER: And sound is so important as a tool in the ocean, because light doesn't travel very far in the ocean. Radio waves don't travel very far. It's only sound that allows you to probe very far in the ocean. And that's one of the reasons why so many scientists are using it.

CURWOOD: And summer in the city. What a difference a tree makes. But big trees in the city are feeling the heat all year around. We'll have those stories and more this week on Living on Earth, but first this news.

Back to top

(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood, and this is an encore presentation of Living on Earth.

(Snaps, crackling, pops)

Sea Sounds

CURWOOD: Snap, crackle, pop. No, this isn't the sound of your morning cereal. It's just some of what you might hear if you put your ear to the underwater world. Mating calls, territorial grunts, thunderstorms, and earthquakes make the ocean a pretty noisy place before one even considers boats and other human activities. So scientists are now studying how sea creatures use and respond to sound. Some of what they've learned so far can be heard in Sounds of the Sea, a display recently opened at the New England Aquarium in Boston. Living on Earth's Eileen Bolinsky toured the exhibit with Aquarium Director of Education Billy Spitzer.

(Thunderous sounds and gravelly calls)

SPITZER: We call this first part our sound tunnel, and it allows you to follow the migratory journey of a humpback whale from Greenland down through the north and mid-Atlantic down to the Caribbean. And on the way to hear the sounds that whale would hear on that kind of migration.

(Whistling and songs)

SPITZER: Some of the most intriguing sounds for me have been the sounds that we've gotten from the Arctic regions, because they're really otherworldly. For example, the sounds of ice creaking and groaning as it cracks and pieces rub together, and then some of the sounds, for example, of bearded seals, which are these very eerie, trilling calls that really sound like they're from another planet.

(Trills descending)

SPITZER: The sounds that we've used in the exhibit have all been collected by research scientists whose job it is to study underwater sound. And they've been all collected using underwater microphones called hydrophones.

(More thunderous sounds)

SPITZER: Some of the most intriguing whale sounds, for example, the finback whale and the blue whale, have these very low frequency calls that you really feel more than you hear.

(More thunderous calls)

SPITZER: I feel like when you're listening to those sounds, it gives you some impression of how resonant the ocean is.

(Low call)

SPITZER: Many people believe, in fact, that whales may be communicating across entire ocean basins, for example, one side of the Atlantic to another.

(Low call continues; waves)

SPITZER: In the mid-Atlantic, after kind of taking a deep breath, going underwater with a whale, get to hear some of the sounds of some other marine mammals like dolphins and so on.

(Dolphin whistles, followed by thunderous call)

SPITZER: And hearing some of the sounds, as well, of ship noise, for example, the sound of a big container ship, which is really pretty dramatic. It's got a kind of a nice beat to it. But you can hear it really overpower some of the sounds of the animals.

(Loud resonance)

SPITZER: One of the things that's hard is to directly measure the impact of noise in the ocean. One of the reasons it's tough is that you have to find a way to see that impact on animals, and some experiments have been done, for example, where people have tracked marine mammals and found that they either avoided or didn't avoid a particular sound source in terms of their swimming behavior. But in a lot of cases we can only speculate. We don't know exactly how whales are using their calls to communicate. We don't know whether the noise we're adding to the ocean, for example, is making it harder for them to hear each other, and perhaps making it harder for them to find each other and find mates. But I think, particularly in the example of coastal areas, where there are a lot of small engines around, you know, jet skis and slow motor boats and so on, it's something we ought to be paying attention to. And I think if there are nonessential sources of noise that we can eliminate, that's something we certainly should be thinking about.

(Whale calls and waves)

SPITZER: And sound is so important as a tool in the ocean, because light doesn't travel very far in the ocean. Radio waves don't travel very far. It's only sound that allows you to probe very far in the ocean. And that's one of the reasons why so many scientists are using it.


CURWOOD: Since we first broadcast this story last year, the Sounds of the Sea exhibit has moved on to the Norwalk Aquarium in Norwalk, Connecticut.

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(Whale calls; fade to music up and under: "Since when did we know how the world invented to spin? The deepest ocean can't even begin to realize, to know the meaning of life forms. Are we the caretakers or friends of the Earth? Are we the takers of all we survey?")

City Trees

CURWOOD: The century-old trees that grace many of our countries urban centers are under assault. Development, with its encroaching asphalt, is an obvious danger. But so are more urban threats, like tailpipe exhaust, diverted water flows, and declining city budgets for tree maintenance. Scott Allen covers the environment for the Boston Globe. He says city trees didn't always have it so tough.

ALLEN: There was a huge explosion of tree planting, especially in the eastern United States and in the Midwest, in the late 19th century. It was the golden age of park building. We had very ugly cities back then, and landscape architects just went to town in our cities. And we here in New England, we benefit from it today. You know, the Emerald Necklace of parks around Boston, like the Boston Common. But 100 years is a long time for a city tree to live, period. And during that last 100 years the life that they have has really deteriorated a lot. These trees were planted at a time when we had cobblestone streets and now it's all paved. And horses were the way of transportation; now it's cars. They live with just astronomical stress compared to the years when they were first planted.

CURWOOD: So our older cities, then, in the East have this problem. What about the rest of the country, with some newer cities?

ALLEN: Well, newer cities, their problems tend to be a little bit different. They tend to have the problem of development. Newer cities are still developing. Washington and Baltimore are not new per se, but look at the sprawl and development down there. And in the past 25 years, their tree cover has dropped from 55 percent of the land area to just 38 percent. That's a loss of two million acres of urban forest due to development and urban sprawl.

CURWOOD: Now, Scott, I like to see trees in the city. But are they more important than me just enjoying them aesthetically?

ALLEN: Well, I don't want to underestimate aesthetic enjoyment, but I think that there's a lot of quantitative information that lets us know trees are even better than we used to think they were. It's not just a beauty question. Trees are marvelous at reducing temperatures. They call it the heat island effect. You go from a rural area to a city and you can feel the temperature rising. And that is the heat bouncing off buildings and asphalt. You put trees in there and you can knock temperatures down three to five degrees. That translates directly into energy savings in the summer time, and we all like it better. Trees are also terrific at preventing floods. They suck up the water that would otherwise be in people's basements. So trees do a terrific job in that regard. They also swallow carbon dioxide, our great emerging enemy of the twenty-first century. So trees are giving us all these benefits, and they look great doing it.

CURWOOD: So, what's happened, then, to the commitment to trees? You say Boston, cities like Boston in the East 100 years ago, they were running around planting trees. Why not today?

ALLEN: Well, I think there's been an awful lot of resting on our laurels. Today, it's popular to buy new pieces of land, it's popular to preserve historic buildings. But the whole issue of trees getting into their old age is not getting very much attention. The maintenance of a tree is not a sexy thing. It's a man with the pruning shears, it's fertilizer, it's water. And we are not investing in those in the way that we used to.

CURWOOD: Now, if you look around the United States, which U.S. cities do you think are doing better investing in trees than others?

ALLEN: Well, Milwaukee stands out from everybody else, and arborists around the country will point to Milwaukee as the best example, at least in terms of how much money they spend on keeping their trees. Milwaukee spends about $30 per resident to take care of their trees. By comparison, the city of Boston spends $2.23, and that does not buy you proper pruning, proper watering, fertilization, and other things. It's just, the tree's on its own for all intents and purposes.

CURWOOD: So, how are we doing about planning for trees in cities?

ALLEN: Well, there is, I guess you'd say a tree movement that has picked up in the last few years. Maybe now that we've gotten so prosperous in this country, we can now start turning our attention a little bit to these other sort of less life-threatening issues. But there are people all across the country that are starting to take more responsibilities for the trees themselves. You're seeing people taking a greater interest and willing to actually pay, you know, $200, $300, $400 to get a tree put in front of their house by the Public Works Department and then maintained so that it safely reaches its maturity. And there's also an increasing amount of research going into, how can we grow trees under the harsh conditions of city living and not have them die in 12 years?

CURWOOD: So if anyone who's listening to us now has some new trees that were planted outside their house, any quick advice for them?

ALLEN: Well, unfortunately, once you've put the tree in the ground, you've sort of made the commitment. You really, the first priority is, is there enough room for the roots to spread out? And a lot of arborists would say in an urban setting, don't bother with those sidewalk trees. Get your tree back into more of an open space where the roots can spread and it can get proper water and it can grow appropriately. Once you've put the tree in the ground, I guess the best thing I can say is, stick with your tree. Go out there, water it -- it really does need water, it can't get too much in those early years, and hope for the best.

CURWOOD: What's the hope for the future of our city trees?

ALLEN: I think that the thing that made me most encouraged when I was reporting this story is that over the last four or five years citizens have begun to feel like you can't just take trees for granted and expect those men with their pruning trucks to come around and save the day. And people are beginning to take responsibility, beginning to form organizations like Trees Atlanta, or here in Boston it's called The Boston Tree Party. People are basically banding together and they're coming to their city councils and saying our trees look bad, we need to invest in them and we need to do it now for future generations. And interestingly, trees, once they're made into a political issue, they become very much like mom and apple pie. So I think the fact that people are starting to care and identify it as an issue and not just part of the landscape may be the thing that makes me most hopeful.

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

ALLEN: Thanks for having me.

CURWOOD: Scott Allen reports for the Boston Globe.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: An economy with no waste, high productivity, and a value for every human being. The story of natural capitalism is coming up here on Living on Earth.
First, this environmental technology update with Cynthia Graber.

(Music up and under)

Technology Update

GRABER: Refrigeration has changed the way we eat. We can store food for long periods of time and ship it around the world. But it's come with a price. The chemicals used in refrigeration, chlorofluorocarbons, deplete the protective ozone layer. CFCs are being phased out, but the chemicals that are replacing them contribute to global warming. So scientists are looking at ways to refrigerate without chemicals. One option gathering increasing attention is sound. When sound waves are pushed through gases, the gases heat up as they compress, and when the gases expand they cool down. In a refrigerating system, a tube with thin plates of plastic can transfer the heating and cooling effects produced by sound waves. One end of the tube gets hot, the other end gets cool. Cool enough to keep food from spoiling. Scientists are now trying to make these sound fridges as energy-efficient as their chemical counterparts, and protect the atmosphere, too. And that's this week's technology update. I'm Cynthia Graber.

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

(Music up and under)

Natural Capitalism

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The word "resource" has its roots in the Latin word resurgure, which means "to return." A new book, describes an economic system based on this notion of returning. It's called Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution. Authors Paul Hawken and Amory and Hunter Lovins argue that with life itself in serious decline, we must begin to create a sustainable economy, an economy in which nothing is wasted and resources fulfill their true meaning. I recently spoke with Paul Hawken. He says the current economic system just isn't working any more.

HAWKEN: What we're saying is that in such a system, you use more and more of what we have less of, natural capital, resources in nature, to use less and less of what we have more of, which is human beings. So on the planet today, we have a billion people who cannot work or have work that's so trivial that they can't support themselves and their family. And at the same time, every living system on Earth is in decline, and the rate of decline is accelerating.

CURWOOD: This book, to put it mildly, is radical in its approach on a whole bunch of things, including even the notion of ownership and appropriate private property. There's a quote -- here it is. "In an economy of service and flow," you write, "an entire company may end up owning little or nothing but accomplishing more, while being located nowhere to sell everywhere." Can you explain to me what you mean here?

HAWKEN: What we're referring to here is an economy where you and I as so-called consumers, rather than owning a TV or a refrigerator, or a car, what we would do is we would pay for the use of it, the services that we want from a car, its mobility and safety obviously. And that the company that we lease these services from would provide them on an ongoing basis. And were they to not work, then we wouldn't pay for it. But the company is responsible for the physical property, that is to say, the material that's in it, in perpetuity. That is, when we're done with it and it no longer works, we want to trade it in, we want a new one or whatever, it goes back to the original maker, and they have to design and manufacture this in such a way that all the pieces, all the components, all the chemicals, compounds, and metals and plastics are to be reused and reincorporated into industrial cycles. There's no landfill in this world. There's no way here. We know that. But in this system, we actually act it out.

CURWOOD: Let's talk a little bit about this notion of designing things for recycling. You say a key part of this is biomimicry?

HAWKEN: It is, and I want to sort of -- it's not just recycling, because it's really reuse. And what you see in living systems is not ownership per se, but a constant flow of nutrients, of elements, of compounds, of energy if you will, from organism to organism, in a cycle that over time actually creates life. That creates more productivity. That is what we call evolution itself. So biomimicry is about saying wait a minute, you know, we have spiders, you know, that create webs, silk, you know. They're stronger than Kevlar, and they don't use boiling vats of sulfuric acid. But they just do it with digested crickets and flies. In other words, when we start to look at nature, we can see in nature the capacity and ability to manufacture enormously sophisticated, durable, and useful materials without the side effects and without the noxious and hazardous chemicals that are produced in our present manufacturing processes.

CURWOOD: Paul, this book in a lot of ways is about our extraordinary wastefulness, as a country, as a planet, really on all levels from the way we get from one place to another, that we heat our homes, the way the pumps work in factories and businesses use paper. But probably the most important waste you talk about in this, is the way we waste people. The social toll. There's a passage I'd like you to read form your book that speaks to this issue. It's on page 55.

HAWKEN: (Reading) In a world where a billion workers cannot find a decent job, or any employment at all, it bears stating the obvious. We cannot by any means, monetarily, governmentally, or charitably, create a sense of value and dignity in people's lives when we are simultaneously creating a society that clearly has no need for them. If people do not feel valuable, they will act out society's dismissal of them in ways that are manifest and sometimes shocking. Robert Strickland, a pioneer in working with inner-city children, once said, "You can't teach algebra to someone who doesn't want to be here." By this he meant that his kids didn't want to be here at all, alive, anywhere on Earth. They try to speak, and when we don't hear them, they raise the level of risk in their behavior, turning to unprotected sex, drugs, or violence, until we notice. By then a crime has usually been committed, and we respond by building more jails and calling it economic growth. The true bottom line is this: a society that wastes its resources wastes its people and vice-versa, and both kinds of waste are expensive.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering here, the typical business model says that businesses trying to be more efficient often end up firing people in order to do that. So, how does saving natural resources equal meaningful work for people in that kind of environment?

HAWKEN: What we're saying is that we are downsizing. We are laying off people. Every business in the world has this incentive to use less and less people. The point of this is, how do we do it? We use more and more natural capital to do so. So it gets to this fundamental issue. We have very deeply embedded in this industrial system the incentive essentially to make people redundant, which is to say, to waste them. To send them a message, these kids that I was reading about, that in fact we have created an economy where they're not necessary and they're not needed. And so, what we're talking about is an emergent change where the incentives are going to increase the productivity of resources. And to do so, you need more and more people. If you look at the difference in capital investment versus employment, from, say, extracting oil from Alaska and combusting it, or using windpower in the Midwest, the fact is that the capital requirements are about 75 percent less, but there's three to four times more employment. We need more and more people to do that, and that's the promise of natural capitalism.

CURWOOD: I get this sense reading this book that you feel that natural capitalism is inevitable. That the world will simply have to do this. Am I right?

HAWKEN: Yes. We think it is inevitable. Having said that, it doesn't mean that its uptake won't be preceded by tremendous loss. Losses in life, losses in biological diversity, loss of climatic stability. These things are happening, and they're happening quickly. But we do think it's inevitable, because humankind in the past has always responded to the limiting factor of human development. Sooner or later, we wake up, we figure it out. It's just a matter of time before we collectively realize that the limiting factor to our well-being is life. And when we do so, we will invest in increasing life itself on Earth. The restoring of natural capital.

CURWOOD: Paul Hawken is author, along with Hunter and Amory Lovins, of the book Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution . Thanks for taking this time with us today.

HAWKEN: Steve, thank you very much.

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(Music up and under)

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; Town Creek Foundation; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues and the environment; the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, supporting efforts to better understand environmental change.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And this is NPR, National Public Radio. Coming up: A salmon saga, the life story of one fish from its birthplace in the Rocky Mountains to the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean and back. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)


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

The Living on EArth Almanac

(Music up and under: "I'd like to be under the sea in an octopus's garden in the shade...")

CURWOOD: Back in the 1960s Americans were entranced by the first space voyages and the race to the moon. But exploration was beginning on another new frontier as well: the world at the bottom of the sea. Thirty-five years ago this week the first crew of ten aquanauts took up residence in Sealab II, a craft anchored 205 feet beneath the waves off La Jolla, California. The all-male crews lived on the ocean floor for ten-day shifts, studying things like underwater weather, visibility, and creatures on the ocean floor. They tested new salvage and rescue techniques, and even worked with a porpoise called Tuffy, who acted as a letter carrier. The aquanauts also examined themselves, testing how their strength, reasoning, and sensing capabilities were affected by the demanding underwater conditions. Once an aquanaut's stint was over, it took more than 30 hours of decompression before he could safely return to the surface without fear of the bends. Forty-five days after they moved into Sealab II, the last aquanauts dismantled the vessel and headed for dry land. But not before making a special long-distance phone call. They placed a call to their fellow explorers in Gemini V, in orbit 100 miles above Earth's surface. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

Back to top

When we return, our special series Point of No Return: Salmon and Society in the Pacific Northwest continues on Living on Earth.
First, this environmental health update with Diane Toomey.

(Music up and under)

Health Update

TOOMEY: In Africa, malaria remains a big cause of low birth weight and death for newborns. Now a small study may explain why. British scientists working in the West African nation of Gambia found that pregnant women attract twice as many malaria-carrying mosquitos as their non-pregnant counterparts. In the experiment, women slept alone under netting in identical huts. In the morning, researchers collected the mosquitos that had accumulated. In Africa there's one species of mosquito known to be the predominant carrier of malaria, and researchers found twice as many of this kind of mosquito in the huts of the pregnant women. The researchers also found that pregnant women give off about 20 percent more breath and have a higher body temperature, and they suspect mosquitos use those chemical signals to hone in on their targets. Now, scientists say they can continue to work on repellents that block those chemical cues. And that's this week's health update. I'm Diane Toomey.

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CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.
You can hear our program any time on our Web site. The address is www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. And while you're online, send your comments to us at letters@loe.org. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. And you can reach our listener line at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. CDs, tapes and transcripts can be purchased for $15.

(Music up and under)

The Point of No Return, Part III: Salmon Saga

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. For thousands of years before the first white explorers arrived in the Pacific Northwest, salmon were making rivers run red. Cohoe, Spring Chinook, Fall Chinook, Steelhead, all choked the streams with their return from the ocean. So many, it was said, you could cross a creek on their backs. Some swam just a few miles inland; others traveled for weeks back into the high Rocky Mountains of Idaho, Montana, even Nevada, to the very streams where they were born. Today we continue our series, Salmon and Society in the Pacific Northwest, with the story of the journey of just one salmon. She's a lucky one, whose bed hasn't been silted by logging operations or trampled by cattle. She's survived concrete barriers and polluted waters and changing ocean temperatures and predators, to go downriver and back up in an ancient and now rare odyssey.

(Music up and under)

WOMAN: You think if they could talk, the stories they would have, and talk about persistence and patience and perseverance. I mean the salmon is it. They're just kind of like my heroes. I wish I had that toughness and persistence to carry on.

(Music up and under)

WOMAN 2: When we see pictures of salmon, they're frequently trying to cross some barrier, like a waterfall or something. And when we look at that, we like to say, "That's me. Against all odds, I'm that persistent, I'm that strong, I'm that graceful." I think it embodies everything that we would like to be ourselves, here in the northwest.

(Music up and under)

MAN: I've tried living other places, but I just spend too much time being homesick. So I keep coming back. And I think the salmon offer us something like that. A sense of absolute home. And on the other hand, they range all over the world. So, it's hard to imagine being a human being without having someone like the salmon as an example.

(Music, fading to flowing water and under)

TOLAN: In the beginning there is the egg in the streambed, a reddish-orange bead against the gravel. The embryonic fish is curled up inside its membrane. Soon a black point forms at the center. The salmon's eye, peering out. And then a tiny fish hatches, bursting through its membrane, and stays hidden in the cobbles, until it swims out as a fry. Here we journey with a single female Spring Chinook salmon from birth to death. Michelle Deharte , fisheries biologist and salmon advocate, and Kim Stafford , Oregon writer and teacher, will help us describe and imagine the salmon's journey, from a bed of gravel in a tributary of Idaho's Snake River and back.

(Music up and under)

DEHARTE: They'll emerge from the gravel at the beginning of the year and be very tiny fry, and live in these tributary streams, until the following year. Winter, you know, will bring the freezing temperatures, will bring snow pack. And when the migration cycle begins, it is attuned to the natural weather cycles of the Earth.

STAFFORD: I imagined a little salmon waking up under the gravel, and all surrounded by this sustaining motion. And being tumbled along down the stream, rolling along and turning and catching itself in an eddy, and then going on at the mercy of Mama, the river, that gets bigger and bigger. And down in the dark in the cold and then up in the light, and how would you orient yourself as you tumble through the first chapter of your life?

(Flowing water with music up and under)

TOLAN: The days grow longer and warmer, and our small fry becomes a smelt, changing her physiology. Preparing for a transition to salt water. At the same time, the snow pack melts and the waters rise, and she is swept downstream, toward the mouth of the great Columbia and open ocean beyond.

DEHARTE: All of this fits together. It's perfect. It's a perfect fit.

TOLAN: For millennia it was a perfect fit. Sixty years ago it changed, when young salmon coming downstream began to meet a new challenge made of concrete.


MAN: The fish are coming down the river. They approach the power house from that direction. And they're going to be intercepted by that, what we characterize ...

TOLAN: The first dam is called Lower Granite. It's operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Over the years the Corps has spent a billion dollars trying to make the dams friendly to fish. Special screens and diversion channels for the power turbines, where the fish can get dazed and disoriented. Monitoring systems at the spillways, where the rush of bubbles can give them the bends. The Corps wants to usher them safely through the dams and into the pools on the other side. Still, many die going through the dams. Sometimes their scales are ripped off despite the government's high-tech efforts.


MAN: And so, fish come to that behavioral guidance structure, and that thing extends 80 feet into the water, near the power house, 55 feet on the far end, 1100 feet in length.

TOLAN: Our fish is destined for another place. Along with tens of thousands of other Spring, Summer Chinook, she is captured, put under anaesthesia, and pumped into a holding tank. From there, she comes down a kind of metal water slide and into a trailer, where 20 women in smocks sit waiting with syringes. At the helm is a government fish biologist.

(Beeps and fans)

MAN: Once the kind of designs, pit tag is injected, it's a little computer chip with an antenna on it. And it gives each fish its own social security number, basically; it's a unique character for each one of these fish.

TOLAN: The women in smocks insert the chips by hypodermic needle.

MAN 2: That's fish number 5277332941.

(Music, with beeps, fans, ambient speech and splashing water, up and under)

TOLAN: Now our fish can be tracked for her journey through the Pacific. And, if she's very lucky, back again.

(Music, with beeps, fans, ambient speech and splashing water, up and under)

STAFFORD?: Well, for the salmon it must be mysterious, because so much surrounding them and buoying them up is as old as there was. The river and the sunlight and the stones shaped by the river that they slip past as they go down. But then to have a gauntlet of obstacles that your body doesn't know, your body doesn't know how to help you, it would be like a human being in a foreign landscape, where you don't know where the poisons are, and who the thugs are. And if someone smiles, does that mean you're about to die?

(Music, with beeps, fans, ambient speech and splashing water, fade to water streaming)

TOLAN: When our fish wakes up, she'll be in a holding pen on a barge headed downriver, to speed her trip to the sea. Others continue their journey through the turbines, the pipes, and the spillways. Those smelts, no longer flushed to the ocean by snow pack, head slowly through the warmer slack-water pools, biological clocks ticking. The ocean they're adapting to is still hundreds of miles away

DEHARTE: Again they pass that dam, go another 30 or 40 miles, and then they get to Lower Monumental. Bypass, turbine, transportation, spillway. Again. And they go on down a ways, and they get to Ice Harbor Dam. Then they get to the confluence with the Columbia, they go a ways down the Columbia, and they get to McNeary Dam. And again at McNeary they've got...

(Rushing water)

TOLAN: And finally, the last of the Columbia dams, Bonneville . For the salmon who have been swimming downstream, it's dam number eight to navigate and survive. Barely half have made it down from dam number one. Our female Chinook, who was captured upstream, continues her ride down on a barge, making one last trip through the locks of an engineered river.


TOLAN: The steel gates close. A man in a control room pushes a button. And the water in the locks drains, lowering the vessel. Then the great steel doors swing slowly open. The federal barge moves into open river. And the federal caretakers of young salmon get ready to dump their load.

(Sprays; fade to water dripping and music up and under)

TOLAN: And our young Spring Chinook, fish number 5277332941, heads out with 200,000 fellow smelts, and the others that have made it over the dams, toward the mouth of the Columbia and Astoria and the great open ocean.

(Flowing water and music up and under)

STAFFORD: Then you're spit out into the salt sea, and how do you find your way? You are with your kind, you are with your enemies, you are with your prey. There is that big deep out there, and you're swept by currents and tides and the moon, and you don't know anything but your own strength and your own confidence.


TOLAN: Our Chinook turns north, following the currents in a great counterclockwise arc. We can't be sure how far she'll go, but her kind from the Snake River have been found up on the Puget Sound, off of British Columbia, and well into Alaskan waters off the Aleutian Islands, up to 3,000 miles away by river and sea. For two, three, maybe four years she'll stay out there. Along the way always, there have been threats: lurking predators, elusive prey. Earlier this century there were fishers who took too much. More recently, some scientists believe, the ocean has grown warmer, making the salmon's prey ever more elusive. Others say no, the North Pacific is following common patterns of fluctuating temperatures. No one disputes the salmon's numbers have been plummeting. In the best of times, of the smelts who left their home streams, perhaps one in 20 lived long enough to return. Now for some runs, it is one in 250. Let us say our salmon is one of those 250, and that her life, spent in the ocean from youth to old age, reaches a point where she is called back home.

(Surf and music up and under)

STAFFORD: And then there comes a turning, as there is for any creature, when it's time to go back. It's time to go on by returning. And through some little thread, a few molecules of stone from where you began, you begin following and finding your way.

(Music up and under)

TOLAN: Our female Snake River salmon, who has traveled thousands of miles, knows how to head toward home. Her genetic clock has told her it's time. After her second or third winter in the ocean, she's come in to feed near the coast. And then it seems her incredible sense of smell takes over. Scientists say freshwater plumes from the great rivers can go hundreds of miles out to sea. And so it may be that our female Chinook, swimming through such a plume, can detect the differences in salinity and temperature. Can essentially sniff her home river. So she heads toward it, toward the memory of the smells of her youth and all that awaits her.

(Flowing water.)

STAFFORD: And then when you're coming home, it's not only that you're going to give all and die to get there. You may not get there. (Laughs) There are too many impossible things that you're contending against. So it's a stranger in a strange land, and it's your own land. What are you going to do?

(Flowing water and music up and under)

TOLAN: At the mouth of the Columbia our salmon stops feeding. She is all muscle and fat now, strong but aging, pointing her snout toward the place of her birth. She heads upriver, and finds concrete where she bangs her head before finding the fish ladder, a narrow passageway of steps around each dam. Bonneville , the Dalles , John Day McNeary, Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and at last Lower Granite. Past the big windows where people peer out and a tabulator counts off the returning fish. Some salmon are sucked back into the dams and have to repeat their upstream climb. It does appear the dams built with fish ladders make the journey upstream easier than the downstream trip of the smelts. The dams built with no ladders, like the Grand Coolie, simply exterminated entire salmon runs. At Lower Granite, where she began her journey three years before on a barge, our salmon is finally beyond her concrete obstacles, and facing new ones.

DEHARTE: If your home stream has been affected by people, the riparian habitat's been destroyed so the water temperature is high, there is a dam on your home stream and it affects the water temperature. Maybe it's polluted. Maybe there is agriculture. Maybe there is cattle. Maybe there is logging and it's silted up. All those things could affect you and could cause you to expire, to cause the fish to expire, before it gets a chance to spawn. We don't know.

TOLAN: In times past, incredible numbers returned, perhaps 15 million to the Columbia Basin. They sustained cultures and a native fishery for 10,000 years. Thousands of salmon would return to single, narrow stream beds. Horace Axtell , elder of the Nez Perce tribe.

(Flowing water and bird song)

AXTELL: I said when they come, you could hear them come up. You could see a mist from the water that they splashed coming up the creek, almost like misty water. They made a lot of noise. And when they get right to the creek there where they were, where the Indians would camp, they were so thick they said you could, just imagine, you could just walk their back and glide across the creek. They were that thick.

TOLAN: It was a gift. That's how the Columbia River tribes always saw it. Salmon were choking the rivers, expiring on the bank, where bears waited and raccoons. And all along the river, people with spears and nets, waiting for the salmon to give themselves.

AXTELL: They thought of it as the Creator's made these creeks and the rivers for all these fish that come up and bring their life up to us. And when they got it, they really give a blessing to that fish. So more would come. And that's why it was considered a sacred food. Because the Creator, through the creation of what the Creator made, the land and the water and the streams and everything. And that's considered like a high priority, because they have to travel so far to bring food to us, the way they did. It's like giving life, to us, with what they give to us, their life.

TOLAN: Salmon brought nutrients from the sea not just for people, because they brought phosphorus and nitrogen to the banks of the streams. Animals would feed and then fertilize the forests. In this way, sea elements have been traced to Douglas fir, to insects, to animals. The sea, a thousand miles away, was part of the forest. And the fish brought it there. The salmon was part of the trees and the animals and the people.

(Flowing water)

TOLAN: At her natal stream, our battered Chinook arrives. White bruises from rocks and concrete, claw marks from sea lions, flesh peeling off. She drifts upstream and down, looking for good gravel in which to lay her eggs. With her powerful tail and the strength she has left, she begins digging, moving cobbles, kicking up silt, making ready her red, or nest, for the future of her race. She is the doe. When the red is prepared, she waits for her buck.

(Flowing water, fade to music up and under)

STAFFORD: And to see the male salmon ready below and all that power and purpose, just before the end. Imagine being a dancer unencumbered by hands or feet, unencumbered by gravity, buoyant. Completely free to, with the one long muscle of your body, shake everything. That's what I felt I saw when I looked down at that salmon spending all the coins of her life in one last dance.

(Flowing water and music up and under)

WOODY: My uncle took me up to this creek, where they were spawning up on our reservation.

TOLAN: Elizabeth Woody is a poet and a member of the Warm Springs tribe.

WOODY: We walked up real quietly to this doe, and he was saying that she was just waiting. And he said, and he goes, "It's real amazing," he said, "about these salmon, is that they come up and, if two bucks come up here and they fight for her, they won't fight too long. Because they don't have much time to waste. And so, the victor will stay with her, she'll build her red, he'll provide the milk. You know, he'll die. As long as she's alive she will protect those eggs. And then she would die." And he looked at me and he said, "Now, isn't that a love story?"

(Flowing water and music up and under)

STAFFORD: You spend all that you have gathered in your life to get back to that place. And give up everything. And then disappear. That's a good circle to live. It has everything.

TOLAN: The circle is weakening. The factors are many. Across the northwest, salmon decline is linked to silted stream beds from logging, estuaries plowed under for urban growth, the dams, and possibly ocean temperatures. Recovery remains elusive. But still, every year some make it back.

JACKSON: You see it come back and it's been through a tough road. It's been through sick, thick, thick, and thick .

TOLAN: Quincy Jackson is a member of the Nez Perce tribe.

JACKSON: It's like, then you reflect back on your life and all, see I've been through some hard stuff. My wife, she's been through even worse. Like an older person, older man or woman, handing down their ways of life, passing their knowledge on to their children, great-grandchildren. It's like, you know, planting their seeds, their own seeds, through their heart. It's like a big ball, just hope it keeps rolling. Just keeps rolling.

TOLAN: The hope for now, for some, lies in fish hatcheries. The tribes and the states are trying to pour so many young salmon into the river that enough will return to recovery the fishery. It has its share of controversy. But young Quincy Jackson feels he's doing something when he brings the young salmon, born in green plastic tubs, to begin their life in the streams.

(Flowing water and music up and under)

JACKSON: See, you actually drive out to this stream or creek, river, or whatever, and pull that plug for them to be dumped into the river. Just like you've kind of accomplished something, to see them come back. I mean, I made that contribution to the future, to the little ones that down the road might catch that fish. Who knows? Who knows what will happen? It's like hope, for one, to come back. Please come back. Me I say a little tiny prayer, you know: have a safe journey to the ocean. Just hope you come back. Just hope you come back. Please come back.

(Flowing water and music up and under)

CURWOOD: A Salmon's Journey was produced by Sandy Tolan. Original music was composed and performed by Dorothy Wang . Our series Point of No Return: Salmon and Society in the Pacific Northwest was edited by Peter Thomson.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Stephanie Pindyck, and Maggie Villiger, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, and Bree Horwitz. We had help this week from Jenna Perry, Jennifer Chu, Nicole Cobb, and James Curwood. Alison Dean composed the theme. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. This program's director is Jesse Wegman. Liz Lempert is our western editor. Diane Toomey is science editor. And Peter Thomson is special projects editor. Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor. And Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation for reporting on sustainable development and environmental issues; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity: www.wajones.org; and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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