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

August 23, 2002

Air Date: August 23, 2002


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An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood

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In her first book, Sandra Steingraber catalogued cancer, the environment, and her own personal battle with the disease. Now, the biologist has a new book out, and this time, host Steve Curwood talks with her about pregnancy, ecology, and motherhood. (11:00)

Animal Note/Desert Beetle / Maggie Villiger

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Living on Earth’s Maggie Villiger reports on a desert beetle that can teach people a lot about collecting water in a dry environment. (01:15)

Almanac/Atomic Tourism

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This week, we have facts about an atomic tourist attraction. April marks the start of tours to a nuclear bunker in West Virginia, once meant to house the U.S. Congress in case of nuclear attack. (01:30)

Myco-Medicine / Kim Motylewski

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They’ve been used in traditional Asian medicine for thousands of years. Now, mushrooms are gaining popularity as over-the-counter supplements here in the U.S. Kim Motylewski reports on what western science knows about these fungi. (09:30)

Dragonfly Dating / Sy Montgomery

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Commentator Sy Montgomery explains the facts of life… from a dragonfly’s point of view. (03:15)

Recycled Runway / Cynthia Graber

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Rhode Island designers and artists create hot new fashions from old clothes and recycled materials. Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports. (03:00)

Health Note/Tick Spit / Diane Toomey

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Living on Earth’s Diane Toomey reports that researchers are examining the ingredients of tick saliva to create a vaccine against Lyme disease. (01:20)

Night Light / Tom Springer

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Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator Tom Springer explains how raising a new barn raised his consciousness about night pollution. (03:30)

Snow Geese

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One way the changing season is marked is by the migration of birds north. Author William Fiennes decided to make a personal quest of the annual snow geese migration, and spent four months following a flock from Texas to northern Canada. He writes of his travels in his first book, The Snow Geese: A Story of Home, and talks with host Steve Curwood about a journey that ultimately led him to the very place he was trying to escape. (12:00)

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Show Transcript

HOST: Steve CurwoodREPORTERS: Kim Motylewski, Cynthia GraberGUESTS: Sandra Steingraber, William FiennesCOMMENTATORS: Sy Montgomery, Tom SpringerUPDATES: Maggie Villiger, Diane Toomey

CURWOOD: From NPR News, This is Living on Earth.

CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. Sandra Steingraber is a Cornell professor and biologist. Her experiences with motherhood have redefined her notions of what it means to be a scientist when it comes to chemicals, kids and the environment.

STEINGRABER: My scientist brain at some point turns off and I no longer beat the drum, as scientists do, asking for more research, saying ‘oh, this is very provocative but we need more research.’ Suddenly, my mother brain comes in here and says ‘you know what? I don’t need any more proof or evidence that this is harmful to children. I have enough evidence now to ask, as a scientist, as a person, as a citizen who wants to influence policy, to ask that this chemical be divorced from our economy and keep our children out of harm’s way.’

CURWOOD: Having Faith, a scientist’s journey through her own pregnancy. We’ll have that story and more this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this.


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An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood

CURWOOD: Welcome to an encore edition of Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Sandra Steingraber, I have in front of me a copy of your new book, Having Faith, and I’m looking at the front cover. At the top there's this intriguing photo of your daughter, Faith. Can you tell me about it?

STEINGRABER: Thereby hangs a tale. The picture is of me and my daughter Faith. She’s two years old, I think, in that picture. What the picture doesn’t show, I think, is during the photo shoot my two year old was in a very bad mood and was in a need of a nap and was very, very cranky. In fact, she had just ordered the photographer out of our house. And she’s got this great smile on her face. That’s because what you can’t see, outside the frame of the picture, is that I’m tickling her, trying to evoke a smile. I myself am looking adoringly at her, but what I’m thinking in this picture is, I hope I don’t throw up, because I’m actually about nine weeks pregnant with Elijah, my son, at this point when the photo shoot was taken.

CURWOOD: Sandra Steingraber is now a mother of two. She had her second child, Elijah, a few months ago. She’s also a biologist who teaches at Cornell University. In 1997 she wrote Living Downstream, A Scientist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment. The book sprang from her own experience with bladder cancer. In her new book, Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood, Sandra Steingraber tracks the whole new environment developing inside her own pregnant body.

STEINGRABER: Well that was the thing that impressed me so much when I became pregnant at age 38. Here I was, this ecologist who had spent 20 years studying the interactions between animals and their habitat, and all of a sudden I saw myself as a habitat. I imagined the interior of my uterus as a kind of inland ocean with a population of one, and so, for me, the experience of pregnancy was of turning my scientist’s eye inward and researching myself and it was a very exciting time.

CURWOOD: Early on, you talk about the different things that make up the uterus and, of course, the amniotic fluid makes this interior ocean you refer to in your volume. I wonder if you could read a little from this section for us.

STEINGRABER: Sure, I’d be glad to. This section actually describes my own amniocentesis and this scene opens when an obstetrician asks me to drink plenty of water: "Drink plenty of water; before it is baby pee, amniotic fluid is water. I drink water and it becomes blood plasma which suffuses the amniotic sac and surrounds the baby, who also drinks it. And what is it before that? Before it is drinking water, amniotic fluid is the creeks and rivers that fill reservoirs. It is the underground water that fills wells. And before it is creeks and rivers and groundwater, amniotic fluid is rain. When I hold in my hands a tube of my own amniotic fluid I am holding a tube full of raindrops. Amniotic fluid is the juice of oranges that I had for breakfast and the milk that I poured over my cereal and the honey that I stirred into my tea. It is inside the green cells of spinach leaves and the damp flesh of apples. It is the yolk of an egg. The blood of cows and chickens is in this tube. The nectar gathered by bees and hummingbirds is in this tube. Whatever is inside hummingbird eggs is also inside my womb. Whatever is in the world’s water is here in my hands."

CURWOOD: What do you mean by this?

STEINGRABER: I mean that women’s bodies are the first environment for all of us. One of the things I learned about amniotic fluid, when I actually researched it more closely, is that amniotic fluid itself is contaminated with the chemicals that we use in the industrial and agricultural world. We’ve detected PCBs in amniotic fluid now, and dioxins and DDT. So there is an exquisite communion between the internal environment of a pregnant woman’s body and the external world. The placenta is an open doorway, not a sealed door on a space capsule. And it really was that moment, where I was able to hold a tube of my own amniotic fluid and realize that I myself was the water cycle now, that I decided I needed to write this book.

CURWOOD: Can you give me a short list of environmental toxins which, through your research, you are the most concerned about?

STEINGRABER: I’m very worried about mercury. I think mercury is turning into a very similar story that lead was in the last century, and mercury rates are still rising now, because coal-burning power plants are the single most important source of putting mercury into the environment, because mercury does contaminate coal reserves. And when this is burned, it does go into the atmosphere. And mercury, like lead, sabotages fetal brain development. It actually paralyzes the neurons as they’re migrating and getting all connected up in the fetal brain.

I’m worried about PCBs. PCBs are an industrial chemical once used in capacitors and other kinds of electrical equipment because it was so resistant to bursting into flames. Unfortunately, its inert qualities that it enjoys in the industrial sector it does not enjoy in the body of a pregnant woman. It interferes with thyroid hormone and thyroid hormone is an essential for helping guide the developing brain. And so, when PCBs are present, thyroid hormone is flushed from the system, and this too can lower I.Q. and cause problems in behavior, later on, for the child.

So, I think what has captured my interest now are the chemicals that have these invisible effects in the way that they sabotage certain kinds of cellular apparatus from getting set up correctly.

CURWOOD: When we think of chemicals and the impact on pregnancy, thalidomide, the whole thalidomide scandal and scare comes to mind and it brings to mind the pictures of babies with flippers and other anomalies. What were your thoughts on this as you went through your own pregnancy, what chemicals might do?

STEINGRABER: Well, I realize it’s not the typical activity, I suppose, for a pregnant woman to spend her first and second trimesters poring through birth defect registry data and things like that, but that’s indeed what I did. And with thalidomide, this sedative that was given to pregnant women to help control morning sickness, if she took it on a particular day of her pregnancy the baby might be born without legs. If she took it on another day, a few days earlier or later, it might be born without ears or without hands. And it really depended on which day she took the pills. And that lesson from thalidomide is that when a child might be exposed to a particular kind of pesticide or a particular kind of industrial chemical on a certain day of exposure, you’ll get a certain kind of effect, maybe a birth defect that’s obvious at birth, but maybe it might affect the way the brain gets wired up. So when the baby’s born it looks fine but perhaps in years to come there may be some deficits in behavior or cognition or motor skills.

CURWOOD: At one point you ask the question, why isn’t there any public conversation on environmental threats to pregnancy? Why did you ask that question?

STEINGRABER: It was amazing to me the disconnect between what I was reading in the scientific literature about environmental threats to pregnancy, of which there’s a whole body of knowledge and a whole big conversation in the scientific world. There’s a disconnect between that and what I found myself reading as a pregnant woman who opened a lot of these popular guides to pregnancy – you know, What to Expect When You’re Expecting and all of the other books that are a kind of cottage industry for women to enjoy their pregnancy. It almost seemed as though there were an unwritten rule that in the popular literature you should speak no evil about the environment, you should be reassuring, to the point of really being in denial that there are these problems. And my sense, and this is why I wrote Having Faith, is that pregnant women do want this information. The idea that we infantilize women who are pregnant and pat them on the head and say ‘just be happy, don’t worry.’ I think those days are over and women want this information and they find it empowering. At least I did.

CURWOOD: You are a scientist, you teach at Cornell University, and you’re now a mother, twice over. How has motherhood affected your thinking as a scientist? How has it changed the way you ask questions?

STEINGRABER: Being a mother doesn’t change the way I pose questions, but I think the way my motherhood plays a role is what happens when I’m ready. I’ve gotten the data and now I want to draw some conclusions from it. And here’s where I always want to err on the side of caution, more now even than before. So there’s where motherhood and science, I think, come together, in the same way that I’m teaching my three year old daughter, Faith, now how to cross a street by looking both ways and by stopping every time. And you do this through incredible repetition. I don’t need absolute proof that she’s going to get hit by a car if I don’t teach her these things. All I need is a remote possibility that she might be harmed. And I’m going to spend a lot of hours of my life working on this one task about stopping and looking both ways. And in a similar way, when I turn my scientist’s eye to looking at environmental toxicants, if we have an indication that these things are harming children my scientist brain at some point turns off and I no longer beat the drum, as scientists do, asking for more research, saying ‘oh, this is very provocative but we need more research.’ Suddenly my mother brain comes in here and says ‘you know what, I don’t need any more proof or evidence that this is harmful to children. I have enough evidence now to ask, as a scientist, as a person, as a citizen who wants to influence policy, to ask that this chemical be divorced from our economy, and keep our children out of harm’s way.’

CURWOOD: Dr. Sandra Steingraber teaches biology at Cornell University and is author of the book Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood. Thanks for talking with us.

STEINGRABER: My pleasure, thank you.


CURWOOD: You can hear our program any time on our website. 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. Once again, letters@loe.org. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, MA 02138. And you can reach our listener line at 800-218-9988. That’s 800-218-9988. CDs, tapes and transcripts are $15.


Related links:
- LOE 1998 interview with Sandra Steingraber on her book Living Downstream
- Buy the book Having Faith from Amazon

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Animal Note/Desert Beetle

CURWOOD: Just ahead, modern science takes a look at the ancient mushroom medicine of Asia and finds encouraging news for some cancer patients. First, this page from the Animal Notebook with Maggie Villiger.


VILLIGER: Water is hard to come by in Southern Africa’s Namib Desert. It’s so dry there that rainfall is considered negligible. But stenocara beetles use an ingenious technique to collect water from the early morning fog that rolls in just a few times per month. Their wings are made of a bumpy field of mounds that attract water and waxy valleys that repel water. And when the beetle bends down and positions his wings leaning into the wind, the incoming fog collects as tiny water droplets on the wings’ bumps.

(Photo: Andrew Parker)

The droplets grow until they detach and roll with gravity down the waxy pathways into the beetle’s mouth. Through evolution, stenocara beetles hit upon the perfect bump pattern. If they were more spread out, the wing surface would fill too quickly and not be able to catch enough fog. If the bumps were any closer, the droplets would be too small and would blow away.

It’s an elaborate way to get a drink of water, but researchers say humans could replicate this fog collecting technique in dry regions. Scientists envision bumpy coverings for tents or buildings that could trap water for drinking or farming. Thanks to these desert beetles, they already know the perfect bump ratio. That’s this week’s Animal Note. I’m Maggie Villiger.

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


Related link:
Visit the researcher’s website

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Almanac/Atomic Tourism

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

[MUSIC: Vera Lynn "We’ll Meet Again" DR. STRANGELOVE (soundtrack)]

CURWOOD: It’s summer and that means summer vacation. For some people, vacation may be the beach, for others it may be trips to exotic locales in distant lands, and still others might enjoy their break by taking a tour of an atomic bomb shelter. That’s right. It all takes place 700 feet below the swanky Greenbrier Resort in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia, behind 25 ton doors, past miles of concrete corridors, in a bunker created to house the U.S. Congress in the case of nuclear war. Dubbed "Project Casper," the bunker was built for $14 million in the 1950s and remained hush-hush until The Washington Post exposed the hideaway in a 1992 article.

(Photo: The Greenbrier)

Though the Greenbrier is a five-star resort, the bunker is no paradise. It’s equipped with decontamination showers, an isolation chamber, and an infectious waste incinerator. The facility also contains mini-replicas of the House and Senate Chambers, even down to the oil paintings of the founding fathers on the walls. And to communicate with the outside world, a television studio complete with a faux Washington, D.C. backdrop.

(Photo: The Greenbrier)

Today the bunker is rented for tours and special events. James Bond parties, we’re told, are a favorite theme. About 20 such gatherings happen each year in the subterranean wonderland, featuring 1950’s costumes, big bands, dancing and cocktails. Care for another martini, Dr. Strangelove? I’ll take mine shaken, not stirred. And for this week, that’s the Living on Earth Almanac.


Related link:
The Greenbrier Resort

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CURWOOD: If you look at Chinese art from the 15th century, chances are you may see a picture of an old man holding a mushroom. Together they symbolize longevity and good health. The mushroom has been a part of herbal medicine in China for more than 2,000 years. Now it looks like the ancients may have been onto something. Modern cancer doctors across Asia routinely prescribe mushroom medicines, and in the U.S. mushroom-based supplements are available in health food stores. American scientists have begun to investigate the potential and possible risks of myco-medicines. Kim Motylewski reports:

MOTYLEWSKI: Reishi, good omen plant, miraculous chi. These are a few traditional names for the mushroom known to science as ganoderma lucidum.

ZHANG: And another name for it is Ling Zhi.

MOTYLEWSKI: Ling Zhi is what Chinese doctors such as Vivian Zhang call this mushroom. She’s an acupuncturist and herbalist who manages the pharmacy at the New England School of Acupuncture.


MOTYLEWSKI: She opens one of 200-gallon-size jars that fill the pharmacy shelves and pulls out some Ling Zhi.

ZHANG: So it’s growing like this. And the stems grow up and then down. We have a little bit shelf or a little bit hat of the Ling Zhi. So, like a cloud around here.

MOTYLEWSKI: Ling Zhi belongs to a group called the polypores. Instead of having gills on the underside, polypores have smooth skin on both sides, full of tiny holes. Ling Zhi has a lovely red varnish on a kidney-shaped cap. These Ling Zhi are dehydrated and feel as light as cork.

ZHANG: And if you bite it, if you chew it, it will taste bitter. And in Chinese medicine we say it has bland flavor, based on its function.

MOTYLEWSKI: That function is to tonify, or strengthen, a variety of bodily functions. Ling Zhi is sometimes called the ‘panacea polypore.’ Listen to Vivian Zhang and you can understand why.

ZHANG: It is good for increasing the memory and for anybody who has fatigue or has the hair loss problem, or even has the digestion problem and feel very stressful. And then, this might be able to calm down spirit and even the gray hair may sometimes grow in where it much more slower than before.

MOTYLEWSKI: The Ling Zhi mushroom is commonly used for these problems at low doses: one or two grams per day. Cook the mushroom in water for about three hours, add a bit of honey, and drink. But Vivian Zhang says Ling Zhi has a dual nature. Given at 10 or 15 grams a day, it’s powerful medicine. In China she would give it to cancer patients who were also getting chemotherapy and radiation.

ZHANG: The person if take Ling Zhi and the Ling Zhi could promote the immune system. Then the person also could have a relatively better appetite than before. So they have a better chance to survive from cancer.

MOTYLEWSKI: In fact, several studies have shown that certain mushroom compounds do enhance immune function and some can actually kill cancer cells in test tubes and in animals. Several human studies also show these extracts can improve survival rates and reduce the recurrence of cancer. In Japan, an extract of shiitake mushrooms, called lentinan, and a compound called PSK, from the Turkey Tail species, are part of standard cancer therapy. So why haven’t we heard about these treatments in the U.S.? Well, almost all of the research on mushrooms has been done in Asia. Some say there’s a bias in the U.S. against foreign science. And in fact, some of the mushroom work is not up to western standards. But now, public interest in integrative medicine has drawn attention to mushroom remedies.


STAMETS: What happened to the concept that you are what you eat?

MOTYLEWSKI: Meet Paul Stamets, founder of Fungi Perfectae, a mail order company that grows and sells mushrooms for your pantry and your medicine cabinet.

STAMETS: I mean, who in the world brought up the concept of the immune system as a disconnect from food? That’s preposterous. Do you have to go to the drugstore in order to buy a drug, in order to affect you immune system? No. It’s a lifestyle.

MOTYLEWSKI: Paul Stamets is working a table at the annual Seattle Mushroom Show. Across the room, a crowd watches as a chef sautés wild mushrooms for a quiche. The aromas that waft our way are mouth-watering.


MOTYLEWSKI: Stamets is bringing medicinal mushrooms to the masses. Fungi Perfectae sells a line of mushroom capsules, teas, and tinctures that he says promote a healthy immune system. Paul Stamets has studied fungi for 30 years. He’s an expert grower and a conserver of fungal biodiversity. But he is not a doctor. His products, he says, are based on the best available science. He knows that science is incomplete but he says that we already understand enough to help ourselves.

STAMETS: If I’m wrong I’d love to know why and I want to build from that. But I’m definitely inspired by the influx of data, I eat data, you know, as brain food. I have to have more data or I won’t survive.

MOTYLEWSKI: He also swallows his own multi-mushroom capsules every day. They contain Ling Zhi and several other species, such as griphola frondosa or Maitake. In nature, this one blooms like a giant carnation, often a foot or more in diameter. There’s trametes versicolor, or Turkey Tail, which grows in fan-like shelves, each covered with velvety fuzz, and hericium erinaceous. It looks like a shaggy white wig, its round cap draped in long, hair-like strands. Some call it Lion’s Mane or Monkey’s Head. Stamets says one big reason the medical potential of these and other mushrooms has lain untapped for so long here in the U.S. is cultural prejudice.

STAMETS: We have had a very biologically provincial view towards fungi and it is a form of biological racism, what I call ‘mycological myopia.’

MOTYLEWSKI: Many Americans, he says, associate mushrooms with infection and decay, not with strength or cure. Stamets traces the view to the English and Irish who first settled here.

STAMETS: They call mushrooms toadstools. Nobody else in the world calls them toadstools. Only these people who fear fungi call them toadstools.

MOTYLEWSKI: But Stamets points out people across cultures and across time have identified certain mushrooms as great medicine. From the first century Greek physician Diascorites, who called the Agarikon mushroom a cure for consumption, to Himalayan Sherpas who drink reishi tea to prevent altitude sickness, to Fungi Perfectae’s own customers.

STAMETS: There is a Cedar fever, a real common allergenic reaction in Texas, for instance. We have a whole group of people down there who swear now by our reishi extracts because these symptoms have been totally alleviated.

PLOTNIKOFF: I worry about people indiscriminately seeking immune enhancement.

MOTYLEWSKI: Dr. Gregg Plotnikoff is one of a few American researchers who are now studying these compounds. He’s an associate professor of Clinical Medicine and Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota. He calls three decades of Asian mushroom science very exciting, but says we need studies of our own.

PLOTNIKOFF: In the United States what the scientific and academic community demands are randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled, multi-centered U.S. trials in order for something to become the standard of care.

MOTYLEWSKI: And this is beginning to happen. Dr. Plotnikoff is testing a number of mushroom extracts for their effects on cancer cells in the laboratory. Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York is looking at Maitake and breast cancer, both in the lab and in people. And Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina is screening 10,000 fungi species for anti-cancer agents. Dr. Plotnikoff suspects some mushrooms do have drug potential, but he says we don’t have the whole picture, even on time-tested species such as Ling Zhi – what he calls reishi. It’s not clear just how Ling Zhi works in the immune system, and he worries about the possible downside.

PLOTNIKOFF: We know that it increases pro-inflammatory forces – we call them interleukin one, six, eight, tumor necrosis factor alpha. These are nice things to have around with infections and with tumors.

MOTYLEWSKI: But they also tend to promote heart disease, osteoporosis, and may increase the risk for diabetes.

PLOTNIKOFF: Does that mean that the reishi or other mushroom extracts do this, as well? We don’t know. The studies haven’t been done. They’re waiting to be done; they’re waiting to be funded.

MOTYLEWSKI: Meanwhile, is it safe to take mushroom supplements for overall health? So far, studies of Ling Zhi have confirmed that traditional uses at low doses are safe. Still, Vivian Zhang at the New England School of Acupuncture warns people with any particular health problem to consult a qualified herbalist. Greg Plotnikoff is even more cautious. He’s concerned that self-prescribers could unwittingly tip their immune systems out of balance.

PLOTNIKOFF: My worry is that people are going to hear about the exciting potential in mushrooms, and rush out and make it like the next St. John’s Wort: ‘More is better.’ Well, actually right at this point, more data is better.

MOTYLEWSKI: It’s not clear when the whole story of mushrooms and immune function will emerge, but results from the cancer research are expected in a few years. For Living on Earth, I’m Kim Motylewski.

[MUSIC - Erhu "Mountain Song" Chinese Instrumentals]

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Dragonfly Dating

CURWOOD: At this time of year, dragonflies get into their own special version of gymnastics. Sy Montgomery comments on love, dragonfly style.

MONTGOMERY: If you spend any time near a pond this summer, you’re bound to witness a sex act so strange that you’ll forget to blush. Dragonfly love takes a chapter from the insect Kama Sutra. It’s an act so athletic that few people realize what they’re witnessing. When dragonflies are mating they form a heart shape with their two bodies, like a flying valentine. They’ve come up with an admirable solution to an anatomical quandary. A male dragonfly has clasping organs at his tail end, and these fit into grooves in back of the female’s head. When he finds a female he flies above and slightly behind her. If she’s receptive she allows him to fasten his claspers while the two fly united.

All this is great except for one problem. Now his tail end, where his sex organs are, is inconveniently occupied with her forward parts. Happily, the male dragonfly planned for this. Before their first date, he has swung his sex organs up toward a special pouch in his abdomen, right in back of his legs, and loaded it with sperm. So, while the male’s tail is stuck in her neck, the female can, if she so chooses, loop her own abdomen up, touch her tail end to her mate’s pouch, and fertilize her own eggs.

Much of the dragonfly action you’ll see this summer is related to sex. Male dragonflies stake out territories to which they hope to attract mates. So if you go to the same place you’ll likely meet the same individuals day after day. Watch for their spiraling combat: rival males chase one another in circles, all the while, losing altitude. They spiral downward till the intruder leaves or they fight. And they fight much like they hunt. They grab their rivals with hairy legs and then, in mid-air, bite with formidable jaws. But male dragonflies save fighting as a last resort. They prefer to dangle, flutter and flash their colorful spots and iridescent patches at one another in ritualized displays.
And that’s a wise strategy: few victims of a dragonfly’s attack survive and they seldom miss their mark. After all, their eyes are huge, occupying three-quarters of the dragonfly’s face. Up to 28,000 individual lenses occupy each eye.

In prehistoric times dragonflies flew on wings as large as those of seagulls. Good thing for us they’re smaller now. But their grace, speed and ferocity remind us that size is no measure of complexity and that life, as well as love, can take on forms more strange and more wonderful than anything we humans could imagine.


CURWOOD: Sy Montgomery is the author of The Curious Naturalist: Nature’s Everyday Mysteries.


CURWOOD: You’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

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Recycled Runway

CURWOOD: Recycling clothes is nothing new. Hand-me-downs and donations breathe new life into suits that no longer suit us or, in some cases, no longer fit us. But now one person’s trash can be another’s fashion treasure. Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports from the recycling runway.

MAN: Hello, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the first Runway Earth, recycled fashions for a sustainable world.


GRABER: It was standing room only at the Recycled Fashion Show in Providence, Rhode Island. The mostly young, mostly jeans-clad crowd packed into a local art gallery and cafe. Images of birds, landfills and recycling sorters flashed onto a screen on stage.

WOMAN: Without further ado, we’ll start part one.

GRABER: From fleece capes to doctor’s scrubs, models sashayed down the runway in clothing spun from recycled plastic.

WOMAN: Seth is featuring a white polo-style shirt and a Patagonia jacket and safety vest. And believe it or not, all the things that Seth is wearing on top are made from recycled plastic bottles.


GRABER: Next up: vintage outfits scavenged from used clothing stores. Fashions range from ’70’s polyester leisure suits to dresses from the ’30’s. Perfect for a romantic rendezvous at the train station.


GRABER: Then came the most creative segment of the show. Local clothing designers and artists dug into used clothing stores and sometimes trash cans to come up with their own recycled couture. A tall brunette wore a sleek black gown pieced together from country-western t-shirts. Faces of men and women peered out at odd angles: a dress that would attract attention at any event.

WOMAN: Let’s bring on Beth.


WOMAN: Beth is ready to ride, ladies and gentlemen.

GRABER: In a bit of Oscar de la Renta meets Oscar of Sesame Street, one scantily clad woman strolled out in an outfit made entirely from bicycles. Rubber from used tires doubled as a tight skirt while the model’s top was bound together with gears. Designers told me a hot glue gun was used to secure the dress around her. And lest you think this show was purely about fashion.


WOMAN: Every year millions of pounds of textiles are thrown away and they go to waste in landfills. By giving your clothes to charity or consigning them to consignment shops, you keep the cycle going and you never know.

GRABER: Audience members had high praise for recycled fashion.

WOMAN: I thought it was very New York.

MAN: My favorite look was the short skirt with the little boy blazer and the slouchy boots.

WOMAN: I’d wear the cereal box skirt – yeah, very cute.


GRABER: My personal favorite? The lemon dress. Large ovals of yellow and sheer green plastic, cut from lemon bottles, adorned a knee-length garment. The effect? A shimmer of springtime colors. Unusual, wearable, definitely cutting edge. Oh, and recyclable too. For Living on Earth, I’m Cynthia Graber.


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Health Note/Tick Spit

CURWOOD: Coming up, a case for turning out the lights. But first, this Environmental Health Note from Diane Toomey.


TOOMEY: Tick saliva is complicated stuff. It contains more than 400 proteins designed to make it easier to suck blood from a human. Some of these proteins suppress pain response. Others increase blood flow to the area and even prevent the body’s immune system from attacking the tick.

But researchers at the University of Rhode Island hope to use tick spit as the basis for a vaccine against tick-borne diseases, including Lyme disease. Here’s how. A vaccine might be able to train your body’s immune system to recognize certain molecules in tick saliva. For instance, a vaccine containing the proteins that inhibit pain response would train your immune system to disable those proteins. So when a tick bit, you’d feel the pinch, promptly remove the little arthropod, and protect yourself against Lyme disease. That’s because it usually takes a full 24 hours for Lyme bacteria to travel from the tick’s gut into its saliva.

Researchers are now in the process of screening saliva proteins for promising vaccine candidates. And how do you get saliva from a tick? You put one on a microscope slide, put its mouth into a capillary tube, and then administer one drop of a muscle relaxant onto its back. In about ten minutes, the tick begins to drool into the tube. That’s this week’s Health Update. I’m Diane Toomey.


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


Related link:
University of Rhode Island press release

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Night Light

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. Just ahead, author William Fiennes confronts the urge to wander and the urge to get back home. But first, in our heavily urbanized world, we tend to equate bright lights with safety. What we forget, says commentator Tom Springer, is too much artificial light can blur the distinction between night and day.

SPRINGER: One of the things I love most about living in the country is the darkness of the night sky. That’s why I never put a yard light outside my farmhouse. I didn’t want manmade illumination to interfere with the panorama of stars and planets overhead.

Then last year, on a cold winter night, I was jarred awake by a light of terrible brilliance. My old barn was on fire. Within minutes, only the charred timber frame remained, stark and black amid a sea of flame. The fire marshal said the cause was arson. And no suspects were ever found.

With insurance money, I’ve hired a crew of Amish carpenters to build a new wooden barn. But as it nears completion, I’m faced with a dilemma. On one hand, I’d like to keep this barn secure. And bright lights are supposed to scare away unwanted visitors, both animal and human. Yet I am unwilling to sacrifice my starry sky to the tyranny of a petty arsonist.

Seeking a solution, I did some research and found out that darkness is a valuable resource for more than just stargazing. I learned that when humans get too much light during sleeping hours, they become groggy, confused and depressed. In one study, people who slept in a room bathed by the glow of a streetlight were more prone to hormone-related cancers. And much to my dismay, even the little green nightlight that I recently bought for my daughter’s room can cause problems. The experts say children younger than two who sleep with a nightlight on are more likely to become nearsighted before they reach adulthood.

But at least humans can pull down the window shade to escape light pollution. Imagine what it’s like if you’re a bird that relies on the stars and moon to navigate. Each year, tens of thousands of them die when they crash into buildings and radio towers obscured by light pollution. The same fate awaits juvenile sea turtles. Once they emerge from their nests along the beach, the little hatchlings are fatally attracted to streetlights in floodlit parking lots.

Light pollution is far worse today than it was a few decades ago. On average, a modern single-family home uses 40 percent more kilowatt-hours of lighting than in 1970. Yet, much of this costly illumination never hits its intended target. Up to one-third of all outdoor lighting shines upwards and sideways and does little more than bathe the sky in a wasteful display of electricity.

As for my barn, an electrician friend suggested I use gooseneck fixtures with circular shields to aim the light downward, the kind used by gas stations during the 1940s and ’50s. He also recommends motion detectors, which turn the lights on only when there is an intruder present. I’ll never understand why someone would burn down a beautiful old barn. But I do know that what we see in the evening sky, whether it’s twinkling stars or the orange glare of suburbia, is a reflection of how we treat the world. And we shouldn’t allow the darkness that lies within a few human hearts to overcome what’s good about the night.

[MUSIC: John Corigliano, "Fancy on a Bach Air," PHANTASMAGORIA (Sony – 2000)]

CURWOOD: Commentator Tom Springer lives in Three Rivers, Michigan and comes to us via the Great Lakes Radio Consortium.


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Snow Geese

CURWOOD: From time to time, most of us feel the need to escape, to stray from the comfort of home and venture into the unknown. When William Fiennes caught the wandering bug, he decided to take wing – literally. For four months, he followed snow geese over a three-thousand-mile path as they made their way from Texas to Canada on their spring migration. He'’s written about the places he visited and the people he met along the way in his first book, The Snow Geese: A Story of Home. The journey, he says, was a way to escape home and the effects of a serious illness.

FIENNES: It really came out of a fairly difficult period of my life. I fell ill when I was 25 and really found myself pretty struck down. And I went to convalesce at my childhood home, where my mother and father still lived. And it was while I was there that I found this book by Paul Gallico called "The Snow Goose," which was a story I remembered from childhood. This very charming, rather touching story about a snow goose that gets blown across the Atlantic by a storm as it’s migrating south from Canada. And it’s shot down by a hunter over a coastal marsh in England. And it’s cared for and looked after by a man called Rhayader, who’s living as a hunchback and a hermit in this abandoned lighthouse.

And I suppose in this story, with all these images of birds migrating to and from their native place, and getting restless at a certain time of year, and finding their way back to their winter grounds, or breeding grounds, it really moved me. And it was a kind of a quest that I would find snow geese in Texas, and when they started heading north with the spring, I would go with them. And I’d go up to Canada if I had to and up to their breeding grounds.

CURWOOD: Let’s talk a bit about the geese here. How do snow geese find their way home?

FIENNES: In waterfowl, it’s suspected that, to some degree, experienced birds guide younger birds. But, at the same time, it’s known that there are whole series of compasses, inherited compasses, that birds use to find their way from one place to another. And these include a sun compass. And because they have an internal clock, they can compensate for the sun’s movement during the day. They have a star compass so they can migrate by the positions of the constellations and particularly the way they relate to the axis of the earth’s rotation. Birds also use a magnetic compass, responsive to the field lines of the earth’s magnetic field. So there’s a sort of whole set of navigational mechanisms with a built-in redundancy so that some will become useful when others aren’t applicable.

CURWOOD: William, there’s a point in your journey where you’re standing on the edge of Sand Lake. It’s in South Dakota. And you’re watching the snow geese fly in. Could you read a little from this, please?

FIENNES: Sure. "The ice was covered with snow geese, a thick sewn crop of white necks right across the lake. Suddenly, the flock took wing, an audience breaking into applause. It was as if the ice itself had exploded. The flock seethed, rolling back and forth on itself, its shadow roiling like a turbulence on the ice below. The applause deepened to the sound of trains thundering through tunnels. Scarves of glitter fell through the flock when drifts of birds turned their backs and white wings to the sun. And sometimes the entire sky was lit with shimmer, as if a silver sequined dress were rippling beneath a mirror ball. The sounds of goose calls and beating wings pounding the ice below.

I witnessed collisions, caroms and buffetings of blue face and white face snows, one bird’s heft glancing off another’s; the "O" of my binoculars, a frenzy of black tipped wings. Then, as before, the first bird settled on the ice, followed by others, each goose taking its place, the gaggle reforming bird by bird, the roar diminishing, until the whole flock was spread before us on Sand Lake."

CURWOOD: It’s just amazing. How could you breathe and see something like that?

FIENNES: Well, in fact, there’s a description a few pages before when I do say, "For a moment, I had forgotten to breathe." Because it was so extraordinary. And these were particularly large flocks they were getting – 200 to 250,000. And this was one thing I learned on the way, that there’s no extinction danger for snow geese. Their numbers have been burgeoning. And this is all to do with the agricultural development of the Great Plains. They’ve got a constant supply of waste grain and rice all on their way north.

They’ve been incredibly successful. And almost too successful, in that now they’re destroying a lot of their habitat along the edge of Hudson Bay. And that’s having a big knock-on effect on other species that rely on those habitats. But it was extraordinary to me.

CURWOOD: At one point in this book, you write that you were at the mercy of snow geese throughout their migration. Can you explain what you mean by this?

FIENNES: Well, I suppose when I started, I’d imagined that it would be quite a smooth flight from Texas to Foxe Landing in Baffin Island. But in fact, it’s a sort of edgy, stage-by-stage thing. I hadn’t realized the extent to which the geese would be sensitive to the weather. And they really fly on the leading edge of spring, and try and sort of push up as far north as they can go.

But if it’s wintry and cold, and the lakes are still frozen ahead of them, they’ll hang back. So sometimes I’d actually see them flying southwards, and think, "No. That’s the wrong way." So this meant that sometimes I’d just have to sit and wait. And often this happened for sort of two weeks, three weeks. So I did feel sort of shackled to them. And you know, I felt at the beck and call of geese and often wondered if that was a particularly healthy thing to be.

CURWOOD: I have to wonder if there was a point that you felt that you just should pack it all in, that maybe this thing was for the birds.

FIENNES: Yes. There were some really down moments. I mean, I was traveling alone for almost four months, and traveling increasingly in quite sort of remote and lonely places. I had moments thinking that all quests were, in some way, futile. But I was incredibly lucky in that whenever I had one of those moments, something would happen. Some person would be kind. Or, some amazing little tributary adventure would take place. And somehow, my spirits would be lifted.

CURWOOD: Tell me about some of these people you met along the way, some of the folks who took you in, or helped you out, and their relationship to the geese.

FIENNES: Well there was a wonderful biologist in South Dakota who’d been at this wildlife refuge for 20 or 30 years. And I used to drive around in his pickup. And he’d test me on the names of the ducks. And there were some people who weren’t really interested in birds, particularly. I remember sitting on a Greyhound bus, next to a former nun. And she talked my ear off and told me wonderful stories about life in the convent. And once she broke a statue of St. Joseph, and this was Mother Superior’s favorite statue. And if they broke anything, they were forced to sleep with it. And so this nun, Jean, was forced to sleep with her statue of St. Joseph. And a lot of people told her that she was lucky just to have a man in her bed.


And then there was a wonderful guy who’d run away from home, and had lived as a hobo, jumping the freight trains from one side of Canada to the other. And he really talked my ear off. He said that, when he was at school during the war, when they’d been doing the vaccination programs, they jabbed everyone with a vaccination needle. But when they got to him, they had run out of needles. So they jabbed him with a gramophone needle instead. And since then, he never stopped talking.


And there was just this great outpouring of life in story. And I’ve tried to introduce certain characters as vividly as I could. Because their stories amplify the theme of the book and this sense of longing for home that runs through it.

CURWOOD: In a sense, you talk a lot about homesickness being a disease. Tell me about those ancient theories and what was the basis for them?

FIENNES: Well that, again, I found just so interesting. And the more I looked into it, the more interesting it became, just as a sort of medical phenomenon. And I had no idea that in the 16th and 17th centuries, people were actually dying of homesickness. It was a medically recognized condition.

And at the beginning, it was thought that homesickness particularly afflicted the Swiss. It was known as the ‘Swiss disease.’ And the reason for this was that it was thought that the Swiss, because they live in the mountains, that they’re subject to less atmospheric pressure weighing down on them up in the mountains. And that when they leave Switzerland, and they go to the low countries, the pressure would be much more intense and then they’d start showing these symptoms. And the cure would be to get them up as high as you could as quickly as possible. They were told to go and climb a hill or climb a tower or something.

And there are amazing stories. A lot of them coming from the military doctors in the 17th and 18th centuries about how really nostalgia, or homesickness, was about the kind of biggest problem facing military doctors. And I suppose one of the things I wanted to get into the book is the idea of a sort of healthy nostalgia as well as an unhealthy nostalgia.

CURWOOD: I want to take you back to the moment when, towards the end of this trip, you wind up in this Inuit community in northern Canada and you go out hunting. Can you tell us the story of this hunting trip?

FIENNES: Well I got to Cape Dorset on Baffin Island. And I went to see the Hunters and Trappers Association. And, each of the Inuit communities will have one of these HTAs. I wondered if there was some way somebody who might be prepared to take me out of the community into the tundra where the geese would be coming down and landing as they really came into their breeding range.

And eventually – well, the next day – they came back to me and said that a lady, Paula, and her son, Natsiq, were going hunting and they’d be happy for me to go with them. So I set out with these two, with this strange pair, for about three days. And then, when we started shooting geese, I realized that that was what we were going to eat, that was what we were going to live on for the three days. And Paula plucked the goose and rolled out its innards onto the snow, and boiled it, and seasoned it with a sachet of Lipton’s Onion Soup. That was the essential ingredient.

And I had this strange kind of communion of feeling a sense of sort of total immersion with the object of my quest. And although that was not what I’d expected, it felt sort of right somehow, that that’s how it had all ended. And then I knew it was time for me to go home. And that had been exerting a kind of constant pull, just as the pull of the excitement and the freshness of these amazing landscapes and scenes had been exciting me before. And I suppose that transition was definitely part of a kind of getting well and a part of a growing up that was all wrapped up in the kind of rite of passage this migration turned out to be.

[MUSIC: Kate Rusby, "The Wild Goose," SLEEPLESS (Compass – 1999)]

CURWOOD: William Fiennes is author of "The Snow Geese: A Story of Home." William, congratulations on your first book and thanks for speaking with me today.

FIENNES: Thanks, Steve. Thanks for having me.

Related links:
- Buy William Fiennes The Snow Geese
- Buy the book that inspired William’s journey, The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico

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CURWOOD: And for this week, that’s Living on Earth. Next week, how some photographers ignore, manipulate, even destroy pristine landscape to shoot that one, stunning, singular magazine cover.

MAN: I started looking at landscape photography in the way you would look at foldouts from Playboy. The very selective precision with which somebody’s posed the landscape.

CURWOOD: Taking nature out of nature photography, next week on Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: We leave you this week with the sounds that snow geese make—lots of snow geese. Lang Eliot and Ted Mack met a huge flock on a recent migration in the rainwater basin region of Nebraska.

Living on Earth is produced by The World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. You can find us at www.loe.org. Our staff includes Jennifer Chu, Cynthia Graber, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum and Al Avery, along with Peter Shaw, Julie O’Neill, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson and Jessica Penney. Special thanks to Ernie Silver. We had help from Jamie McEvoy, Max Morange, and Emma Owodukunda.

Allison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar.

Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Ingrid Lobet heads our western bureau. Diane Toomey is our science 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.

FEMALE: Funding for Living on Earth comes from The World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, supporting the Living on Earth Network, Living on Earth’s expanded internet service; The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for reporting on western issues; and the Ford Foundation for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues.

MALE: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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