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

November 28, 2003

Air Date: November 28, 2003


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Water for Profit

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Over the past decade, an ever-growing number of people throughout the world have been getting their water from private, for-profit companies. Now, an international group of journalists has taken a hard look at this trend. Canadian journalist Bob Carty was part of that team, and speaks to host Steve Curwood about the downsides, even dangers, of water privatization. (10:30)

Environmental Health Note/Can You Hear Me Now? / Jennifer Chu

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Living on Earth's Jennifer Chu reports on a study on the effects of cell phone radiation on the brain. (01:30)

The Roadless Yaak

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The Yaak Valley lies in the northwestern corner of Montana, and has been logged for its timber more than any other valley in the state. There are, however, 15 areas that remain untouched by loggers. Author Rick Bass has recruited dozens of writers, scientists and locals in a campaign to preserve the last of the Yaak’s forested areas as wilderness. Host Diane Toomey talked with him about his new collection of essays called: “The Roadless Yaak: Reflections and Observations About One of Our Last Great Wild Places.” (15:00)


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This week, we dip into the Living on Earth mailbag to hear what listeners have to say. (01:30)


Emerging Science Note/Herbs Under Wraps / Cynthia Graber

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Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports that basil infused plastic wrap might help keep food fresh longer. (01:15)

The Great Auk

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In 1991 Dick Wheeler fulfilled a life-long dream and paddled his kayak along the migratory route of the now-extinct Great Auk from Newfoundland to Buzzard's Bay, Massachusetts. He teamed up with famed storyteller Jay O’Callahan to help him tell the story of the Great Auk, and both men join host Steve Curwood in the studio to recount Mr. Wheeler's remarkable journey. (20:40)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: Bob Carty, Rick Bass, Dick Wheeler, Jay O’CallahanNOTES: Jennifer Chu, Cynthia Graber


CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. Water used to be plentiful and cheap, if not free. But not anymore. Now, entrepreneurs see a steady market for this essence of life.

SPILLETT: It's a limited, precious resource. So, the growth market is always going to be there, so it's a very reliable place to put your money.

CURWOOD: But in some places, private suppliers have prompted public outrage.

MILLER: This summer, we had multiple times where you would turn on the faucet and nothing would happen, sometimes for a couple hours, sometimes for a couple of days. And then when the water comes back it looks like dirty creek water.

CURWOOD: The business of water, this week. Also - saving a peculiar place called Yaak Valley, Montana. And paddling the migratory route of the Great Auk. Those stories just ahead. Stick around.


ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth Comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

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Water for Profit


CURWOOD: We usually begin our program with the line – “Welcome to Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.” But today we want to take a moment to inaugurate our new and improved studio facilities here in the heart of Davis Square in Somerville, Massachusetts and thank Jennifer and Ted Stanley whose generous gift made this new home possible. To show our appreciation, we have named our studios after these long-time supporters of public radio and environmental journalism. So, as of this week – hit it Andy…


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Over the past decade there has been a sharp rise in the number of people throughout the world who get their water from private companies. Critics of water privatization say it's dangerous to put the most vital of our resources into the hands of for-profit entities. But the companies argue that they're more efficient and cheaper than public utilities. The International Consortium for Investigative Journalists has completed a year-long probe of this issue. We're joined now by Bob Carty a producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Bob was part of that international team and is a regular contributor to Living on Earth. Welcome Bob.

CARTY: Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: Now, tell me, just how big a phenomenon is this move towards private companies providing water?

CARTY: What we found in our research was that in 1990, private companies were delivering drinking water in just 12 countries around the world. Today they're in 56, at least. And if you throw in wastewater or sanitation service, they're in over 110 countries. If you had a McDonald's sign over the top of this industry, you would say, "More than 300 million served." That's the number of their customers around the world.

It's been a tremendous expansion just in a decade, and mostly by just three corporations. There's about six big ones, but three really large ones: Suez and Vivendi, both from France, and Thames Water from the United Kingdom, although it's, in turn, owned by RWE of Germany. They are some of the biggest corporations in the world and they've just, in recent years, gone beyond their homelands of France and the U.K. to be global players.

CURWOOD: And this expansion, is it just into the Third World?

CARTY: No, the companies are operating on every continent, including North America, where they're still small, maybe only five percent of the market. But they've already won contracts in places like Atlanta, Indianapolis, and Puerto Rico.

CURWOOD: Now, tell me why this network of journalists, the International Consortium for Investigative Journalists, decided that this was an issue that warranted scrutiny? What's the concern? What's the danger of having private companies supply water?

CARTY: I guess a number of people have certain philosophical concerns to begin with. For example, in the United States, six out of the seven major players are foreign-owned companies and there's a question about having something as vital as water to everybody's life in the hands of foreign players. And some of these companies have budgets and income that are bigger than the budgets of some of the states.

In more concrete terms, we found some positive examples of privatization around the world, but a lot of negatives, too, Steve. I'll give you a few examples. In the Philippines, we found that the companies promised to really help the poor and they didn't deliver the promises. And one of the multinationals actually walked away from the Philippines quite recently because they weren't making enough profit.

In Jakarta, in Indonesia, we found that millions -– tens of millions of dollars – ended up in the pockets of some of the cronies of the former dictator Suharto, with citizens of Indonesia wondering who benefits from privatization.

Here in Canada we found that there was major privatization, with huge cuts in staff, that was blamed for one of the largest — actually, the largest spill of sewage, raw sewage, into Lake Ontario. And in South Africa, we found 10 million people, almost a quarter of the population, have over the years had their water cut off because they couldn’t pay water at market rates. Everywhere we found less accountability with privatization, including in places like Atlanta.

CURWOOD: What happened in Atlanta?

CARTY: Well, a few years ago Atlanta decided it didn't have the money to invest in the future needs of keeping up its fairly old water system, so it put it up for tender. There was a competition, and Suez, through its subsidiary United Water, won the contract to run the drinking water system of Atlanta.

Now, this was supposed to be a showcase of what private companies could do, but it didn't turn out as promised. As you'll hear here from a couple of women from Atlanta, Lamar Miller and Walda Lavrof.

MILLER: This summer, we had multiple times where you would turn on the faucet and nothing would happen, sometimes for a couple hours, sometimes for a couple of days. And then, when the water comes back, it looks like dirty creek water. It clogs up all the filters in your refrigerator and it destroys your laundry.

LAVROF: There was a boil advisory out for water and we didn't get the advisory until a day or two later. Which is serious business because if the water is not safe to use, as they said, for baby formula or for elderly, ill people, and so on, we should be notified at once, not a day or two later.

CARTY: And that's Walda Lavrof, and earlier, Lamar Miller of Atlanta.

CURWOOD: So, what happened with this private water company in Atlanta?

CARTY: Well, the city did an audit of the private company and found that it wasn't collecting water bills sufficiently, it was delaying in repairs, it had bad customer service. It wasn't providing the city the savings that had been promised. For its part, the company just said that it didn't realize that Atlanta's pipes were so old and in such bad shape.

In any event, the two parties dissolved the contract. Atlanta water goes back to the public sector and the company, Suez, I suppose, has some egg on its face. But not enough damage to its reputation to prevent it from going in search of other contracts in the United States.

CURWOOD: Bob, when you think about big business expanding around the world, you think of sexy, high-tech industries, not something as humdrum as water utilities. I mean, it's the ultimate plain commodity, isn't it? I mean, what makes water such an attractive business?

CARTY: Have you ever played Monopoly, Steve?

CURWOOD: Oh, yeah.

CARTY: Okay. You know the strategy where you go after Boardwalk? You've done that. Get a hotel on it. There's another strategy, though, which is to buy up the utilities and the railways. They don't get as good a rent from the competitors going around the board, but people land on them all the time, every time around the board, and so you just keep raking in the money. It's stable and consistent.

Well, the water companies recognize this as a great long-term investment. Water is called the great unopened oyster, blue gold, the petroleum of the 21st century. The potential market, according to some estimates we found, is that the current market of about half a trillion dollars a year could grow to three trillion dollars a year.

And I have some tape from the water companies explaining their interest in water as a business. We'll hear first from a senior executive of the British company, Thames Water. He's Mr. Peter Spillett.

SPILLETT: Water is essentially a utility. Utilities are much safer than the high-risk stocks and shares. There's huge growth potential. We are worried about water resources in the future, about public access. We think there'll be world wars fought about water in the future. It's a limited, precious resource. So, the growth market is always going to be there, so it's a very reliable place to put your money.

CARTY: And those are the views of Peter Spillett of Thames Water. Views, Steve, that are very similar to those of Yves Picot. He runs the African operations for Vivendi, a French company. And Yves Picaud also feels water is a good business bet for the future.

Women in South Africa get water from new standpipes that were installed after a cholera outbreak killed almost 300 people. (Photo: Bob Carty)

PICAUD: I think it's because it's a stable one. It's a long-term one. You have no surprise. One thing we are sure: everybody drinks water every day, or use water every day.

CARTY: And that's Yves Picaud for the Vivendi Corporation.

CURWOOD: Now, how have these water corporations been able to expand their presence around the world?

CARTY: Well, one way we found was that they got a lot of help from the World Bank. The World Bank as a development institution used to help poor countries build their own public waterworks, but they got criticized under the Reagan and Thatcher administrations for subsidizing the poor, for welfare mentalities. And the World Bank adopted, about 10 years ago, a fairly free market approach.

And I have some tape on this from one of the World Bank's top water specialists. He is Menachem Lieberberg. He says the bank does support both public and private water services, that it's not ideologically in favor of one or the other, but you'll hear here there's a clear commitment to business. He's Menachem Lieberberg of the World Bank.

LIEBERBERG: I’ve found from my experience that ailing public utilities, it's basically impossible to improve them. You can put in all the money. The only way to get an ailing utility to work is through private sector. It's better handled by private companies because they have this business approach.

CARTY: And that's Menachem Lieberberg of the World Bank.

CURWOOD: Bob, how does the World Bank actually get countries to go the privatization route for water?

CARTY: Well, they use leverage through what they call conditionality, or tied loans. If you want our money, you have to do something in return. That kind of conditionality, we found in almost 60 percent of recent structural loans from the bank that it required privatization initiatives. The World Bank says it's just trying to get water to people, that it doesn't force itself – it doesn't force governments to privatize. But if you're a poor government and you get an offer of $200 million dollars to privatize and you get nothing if you don't, they see it definitely as a lot of pressure.

CURWOOD: Are there good public institutions to be supported here?

CARTY: Well, yes there are, and we found an interesting one in Bogotá. The utility there actually has won awards year after year for its water services. They provide really good services. They're helping more and more poor people, and they're doing it by getting the rich to subsidize the poor.

But a couple years ago, they went to the World Bank in Washington to get a loan to help extend those services to more people, and the World Bank said no. They wouldn't loan them money unless they privatized and dismantled their subsidies. The Bogotá people, for their part, said no, and told the World Bank to keep the money.

CURWOOD: Now, what about the privatizations? Are there privatizations that work?

CARTY: Well, yes, there are interesting examples we've seen in places like Cartagena, Colombia, and Casablanca, Morocco. Even in Manila, more poor people have some more water, though they haven't met the targets that were originally set down. Everywhere, though, we found people asking the question whether or not this could have been done, still, with a public utility. Did it have to go into private hands? Couldn't it have been done just as well by the public sector if it got some help?

CURWOOD: What are the business strategies for water corporations in the future, Bob?

CARTY: I talked to each of the three big companies about this over in Europe and they all have the same strategy, interestingly enough. They're going to keep their foundations in Europe. They're going to target two new areas. One is China and the other is United States, seen as the crown jewel for the private water industry.

CURWOOD: Bob Carty is a producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and a frequent contributor to Living on Earth. Hey, thanks, Bob, for filling us in.

CARTY: You're welcome, Steve.

CURWOOD: For more information on water privatization, go to our Web site, loe.org. That’s www.loe.org.


Related links:
- The International Consortium for Investigative Journalism water reports
- CBC water series

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Environmental Health Note/Can You Hear Me Now?

CURWOOD: Just ahead, poetry and prose inspired by Montana’s Yaak Valley. First, this environmental health note from Jennifer Chu.


CHU: Most research on cell phone usage has focused on a possible connection between radiation emitted by phones and cancer. And those studies have found no link. But a Swedish research team recently looked for a different effect.

They already had shown in previous studies that cell phone radiation weakens the protective layer of cells between the brain and bloodstream in rats. They also knew that the protein albumin could leak through this protective barrier. The researchers wanted to find out if this albumin leakage was damaging. So they exposed rats to radiation generated by a type of mobile phone commonly used in Europe. The rats were divided into three groups and exposed to different doses of radiation, all comparable to what a human might receive using a cell phone for two hours. Another group of rats received no radiation.

As expected, the exposed rats' brains showed signs of albumin accumulation. But these new tests also showed signs of significant damage to neurons throughout the brain. What's more, the higher the dose of radiation, the greater the neuron damage. The researchers admit this was a small study, but say it may point to long-term effects from frequent exposure to cell phone radiation.

That’s this week’s Health Note. I’m Jennifer Chu.

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


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The Roadless Yaak

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. In the northwestern corner of Montana sits a million-acre forest called the Yaak Valley. The Yaak is part of the Kootenai National Forest and has been heavily logged for decades. But there are 15 pockets of land in the Yaak that so far have escaped the chainsaw.

BASS: You can feel it immediately, entering such lands, such small remaining gardens. So great is the power in mystery, indeed the health that emanates from these last roadless cores, that you can feel the difference even standing at the edge of one of these last gardens.

CURWOOD: That’s writer Rick Bass. He lives in the Yaak Valley and he’s waging a campaign to have Congress declare those regions “wilderness,” a legal status that would keep those pockets of the Yaak roadless and prevent logging there. As part of that effort, he’s asked dozens of authors, scientists and Yaak Valley residents to write about their experiences in the Yaak. The result is a collection of essays and poems called “The Roadless Yaak.” You’ll hear a few of these authors read part of their essays in just a moment. But first, we’ll hear a bit more from Rick Bass who gave Living on Earth’s Diane Toomey a virtual tour of the Yaak Valley.

Upper Yaak (near Canada)
(Photo: Rick Bass)
TOOMEY: For those of us who have never been to the Yaak, and I’m sure that is many of us, give us a tour of the Yaak Valley. What would we see?

BASS: Sure. Well, it’s up against the British Columbia border and the Idaho border, and that’s one of the things that makes it so biologically wild. It’s this Pacific Northwest weather system in a Northern Rockies landscape. If you were to head north up off the Kootenai River, you’d start seeing a lot of clear cuts, and then you’d see some big trees, and then more clear cuts, then a lot of small trees where we’ve logged hard in the past. You’d see a real mixed assemblage of management and no management. And you’d see big, sweeping fronds of cedars, you’d see bright foliage, you’d see conifers, you’d see wildflowers. Every bend in the road would bring something different. It would remind you very much of New England, real soft, low hills. Again, being at such low elevation. There’s not a lot of scenic vistas. It’s foggy, rainy country.

TOOMEY: What kind of wildlife would I see if I went to the Yaak? Would I come across any charismatic megafauna?

BASS: That’s a good question. If you come up there, you’re not going to see the charismatic megafauna because there’s so few of them. We’ve got five or six wolves left in a million acres. We’ve got 10 or 12 grizzlies left in a million acres, and nobody ever sees the grizzlies. I mean, you hardly ever see a track if you hike all summer long, all fall long. You may see one track if you’re lucky. We’ve got a handful of lynx and handful of wolverine. It’s like a reverse Noah’s Ark. We’re down to single or double-digit populations of this incredibly long list of threatened and endangered and sensitive species.

[MUSIC: Rick Rizzo & Tara Key, "Sinfo," ALL TOMORROW’S PARTIES (ATPR, 2001)]

RAY: Once at a campsite in the upper Yaak, a woman with long gray hair and wild eyes roared up in a pickup nearly as old as she was. She cut the motor and stalked over to where I sat in the grass talking with a group of college students who were camping beside a little creek. "A bear lives up here," she said, accusingly glaring. "She’s been here for years. You have to be careful with your food; lock it up at night. If the bear becomes a nuisance, they’ll take her away, and there’s nowhere else for her to go."

"We’re being careful," we said truthfully, placating, but the woman was severe.

"If you leave food out, that’s not the bears’ fault," she said. "This is the end of the road for her. There’s nowhere else to go."

Janisse Ray, Yaak Valley, June 1997.

TOOMEY: You’ve got about three dozen writers who contributed to this collection. There’s everyone from the former Chief of the Forest Service Mike Dombeck, to nature writer Terry Tempest Williams, to even one of the local fishing guides. What was the process like to get all of these people to contribute?

BASS: A lot of them are our friends and they’ve been hearing me bellyache about the Yaak for so long, maybe they thought if they came up here and did something, I’d stop asking for help. I don’t know. But it was pleasant. It was just an excuse to go into the backcountry with friends, one at a time. Something that surprised me was how many times people referenced healing in their personal lives and a need for emotional healing, or sometimes physical healing and how that need incorporated itself into their visit. That was something I had not expected, but it was a very recurring theme.

TOOMEY: In this collection, there is a number of references to something called the Dirty Shame Saloon. And I want you to tell me about the Dirty Shame Saloon, Rick. What’s it like? How did it get its name?

BASS: Dirty Shame is the cultural center, a really watering hole, another rank, rough place, check your pistols at the door, kind of thing. And dogs, and kids, and old folks have wandered around in there drinking beer or lemonade respectively. And it’s got music on Friday nights. It’s really the only island of humanity in a very wild landscape.

[MUSIC: Ry Cooder, "Feelin’ Bad Blues" MUSIC BY RY COODER (Warner Bros., 1995)]

FRANKLIN: I parked the Chrysler beside a blue Nissan pickup, the only vehicle there. Inside the saloon, a man named Dick McGary was reading a Missoula newspaper. Missoula, I thought, sitting at the bar, remembering how far south that city was from here. Ken had uncased his guitar and was plucking it, while I studied the dollar bills stapled to the walls, the names of people everywhere. We were the only customers at the time and, as it turned out, the only customers that night.

McGary set Bud Lights in front of us. "Where are you guys from?" I told him. He raised his eyebrows. "You drove here? From southern Alabama?" We both nodded. "Jesus, why?" Ken paused in his playing, and I tried to tell how I thought I needed some place like a wild valley to give me back what I couldn’t put into words. I didn’t explain myself very clearly, I guess.

McGary grunted and said other tourists came up here too, too damn many. That we weren’t the first. "Nobody from as low as you though," he said. I got quiet then, feeling diminished, as McGary told us about the valley, its tiny population, the severe winters, what to do if we hiked and came across a grizzly, how to avert our eyes, slump our shoulders, and make ourselves non-threatening. But it was the opposite, he said, for a mountain lion. For one of those, you wave your arms and charge it.

Outside, the rain was picking up, spattering the roof. The crack beneath the door flickering with lighting. Low rumble of thunder rolling in from the mountains.

Tom Franklin, Yaak Valley, June 1990.

TOOMEY: Tell me about your neighbors.

BASS: Well, you won’t see, they’re part of the charismatic megafauna, and you won’t see them either. They live way back in the woods. And we’ve all moved up there to kind of check out of the main flow of the times. It’s the full gamut, as can be expected. There are people who hate the government and don’t want any kind of protection. And there’s people who hate corporations and say ‘No, we’ve got to have the government protect everything we do, everything that’s special and dear to us.’ And then there’s folks in the middle, and there’s folks who like to fight, and there’s folks who don’t like to fight. It’s a perfect cross representation of the country.

[MUSIC: Tracy Scott Silverman, "Prelude 2," TRIP TO THE SUN (Windham Hill, 1999)]

DAILY: Driving to our cabin, we stop at the meadow. The rain has quit, and suddenly the sky is only mottled with clouds. Shining our headlights across the meadow, we see water from the river seeping over the bank into the growing pond. Ducks startled by our intrusion make their way to its safety. We turn off the headlights and shut down the engine. A loon calls as it wings its way through air above the river.

In the distance, we can hear the river gurgle as it rises slowly and powerfully, coursing toward the Kootenai, then the Columbia, and then to the sea. Shortly after we were sitting in our own cabin. Our fire, like 50 or so others in the valley, is crackling and popping in the stove. Candlelight dances in the log walls, and Sammy perks her head up and lets out a muffled bark. Sherrie, my wife, found bear scat in the road yesterday while taking a walk, and we talk about how we hope our composting bin is safe now that spring is creeping in.

We borrowed a movie from a friend earlier in the day, but decided against threatening the night with a roaring generator. The night is too peaceful for such commotion. From our cabin we cannot hear the rustle of the river, or the sound of water rising over the bank to flood the land.

Instead, our conversation drifts like smoke into the fog, talking first about our plans for the garden and finishing the cabin, and then moves at its own rhythm to our families in Pennsylvania, and how hard it can be at times, especially at their age, and how sometimes we wish we can be there for them, as they have been for us.

The rain starts again, and it patters on the tin roof, and the gas lantern hisses into the night, eventually growing dim. Sammy lay on the floor twitching, perhaps dreaming of running off into the rain and trees in pursuit of something untamed.

Scott Daily, Yaak Valley, Montana, July 2001.

TOOMEY: When I first got this book, before I read a word of it, I thumbed through it, and I looked and I looked, in vain, for a map. There is no map in this book. Rick, why is that?

BASS: It’s a good question. It’s not a place that I think of as a tourist destination. It’s public land. Anybody’s welcome to come up and check it out. But the point that I wanted to make is that it’s a biological wilderness and not really a recreational wilderness. There’s not a lot of scenic vistas. There’s a lot of clearcuts, a lot of fog and rain and mosquitoes, and, quite frankly, unsociable people, myself included, living up there. I wanted the reader to love the place on its own terms, not for what it has to give the reader. It’s given and given and given. More timber’s come out of this valley than any other valley in the state of Montana for the last 50 years, and it’s time for the public to give back to the Yaak, rather than looking through it as the lens of, ‘What does it have to offer me?’


SAINSBURY: We were walking up a ridge that bordered the Yaak River when I saw the larch tree. It had a blackened cat-face, a fire scar cavity beginning at ground level and ascending several feet up the trunk. A sort of oval-shaped, wavy frill set the black interior apart from unscorched bark. There seemed to be something missing, gone from this black oval space. It was as if the rim were outlining a palpable absence.

As I turned to go, I realized what the space cried out for was Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of the Americas. In a miraculous appearance, she made a promise to a Mexican peasant in 1531 that she would listen to lamentations of the poor and remedy their miseries, afflictions and sorrows. I was reminded of a time while hitching a short distance in Baja when my friend and I were picked up by a Mexican family on a mission. Three generations had piled in a beat-up, old, black Ford pickup, and set off as custodians for the various shrines to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

As each small shrine appeared, the patriarch driving would suddenly swerve off the road, and the family would tumble from the truck. They removed the worn out candles and scraped off the built up wax, arranged the shiny tokens left by other wayfarers, and swept out the little enclosures. No one had left offerings in the cat-face of the larch, not a penny or a candle or a scrap of food. Why should they? But then again, why not? Why not covet a miraculous sylvan lady who looks out for unfallen trees, or gives eternal hope to the stumps? The big trees have many reasons to hope for a savior.

Lynn Sainsbury, Yaak Valley, March 2001.


TOOMEY: Rick Bass, how did the Yaak get its name?

BASS: It’s a Kootenai Indian word. It means “arrow.” The Yaak comes so straight down out of the mountains that it’s in the shape of an arrow, and it intersects the curve of the Kootenai River, which is shaped like a bow. That’s one of the great places about this landscape. There’s metaphor everywhere you look. And one of the reasons I think there’s so much metaphor and so much richness is that nothing has gone extinct there yet. We’ve still got everything that was ever there; it’s just down to the very bitter end. But it’s all still there. And there are very few places, if any, left in this country about which you can say that.

CURWOOD: Rick Bass is a writer who lives in the Yaak Valley in Northwestern Montana. He’s edited a collection of essays called "The Roadless Yaak: Reflections and Observations About One of Our Last Great Wild Places." He spoke with Living on Earth’s Diane Toomey. To hear more readings from “The Roadless Yaak,” as well as interviews with some of the authors, go to our website, “livingonearth.org.” That’s “livingonearth.org.” And you’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.


ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the William and Flora Hewlett foundation, for coverage of western issues. Support also comes from NPR member stations and Bob Williams and Meg Caldwell, honoring NPR's coverage of environmental and natural resource issues, and in support of the NPR President's Council. And Paul and Marcia Ginsburg, in support of excellence in public radio.

Related links:
- Additional photos of the Yaak Valley
- Listen to additional stories from the Yaak Valley">

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CURWOOD: Time now for comments from our listeners. Producer Guy Hand’s story “Going for the Kill” – about the remaking of nature TV – drew impassioned responses from many of you. Most are fans of nature programming and are disappointed by its new action-packed, “Reality-TV” format.

“I grew up with the David Attenborough quiet, respectful approach,” writes Pauline Groh, who hears Living on Earth on WUGA in Athens, Georgia. “Your program brought home to me how far we have yet to go in understanding our planet and ourselves. If the only thing that sells tickets is watching someone having their leg bitten off by a shark, what that does that say about us as a species?”

Chris Winters, a listener to WAMC in Albany, New York, agrees. “Thank you for presenting this perspective,” she writes. “As a naturalist and conservation biologist, I understand the problem of trying to ‘sell’ nature and conservation - it is a tough sell. My experience tells me that although many nature shows entertain and sometimes even teach, the tone of violence and danger often further separates the average person from nature with the fear it generates.”

Vic Banks, who hears us on WBEZ in Chicago, is even more pessimistic. “I've been to the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, having written and produced those type of programs. You be-labored an old issue of “True Nature” versus pumped-up “TV Nature” that is rapidly becoming academic, as there is now very little nature programming on U.S. markets. Your story didn't address an even more compelling question. When these very costly, often beautiful nature programs are produced, do they motivate anyone to help? Or do viewers pop a beer and click on ‘Fear Factor’ or ‘Joe Millionaire?’”


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CURWOOD: Of course, even a documentary can’t compare with seeing the wonders of nature unfold in front of you, live and unedited. And we want to bring you where the action is. You can join me and others from the Living on Earth community on a unique African Eco-Tour this May.

We’ll visit some of the great natural areas of Africa, and have the chance to see some of the world’s most exciting wildlife. Some of the time we will stay in the Mtentu campsite on South Africa’s Wild Coast along the Indian Ocean. The camp is owned and operated by members of the local community. They’ve designed all its facilities to merge naturally with the surrounding environment. By staying there we will bring business to the people of an area still recovering from the hardships of apartheid. And by supporting responsible eco-tourism, we’ll help conserve the land and its wildlife.

There are two ways that you can join the safari. Go to livingonearth.org to find out how you can win a trip for two. You can also reserve a space by buying a ticket right now. For details, visit our website, livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org for a chance at the trip of a lifetime.


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Emerging Science Note/Herbs Under Wraps

CURWOOD: Just ahead: the bird is gone but its legend lives on. A man, his kayak and his passion for the Great Auk. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Cynthia Graber.


GRABER: Basil is famous around the world for the flavor it brings to food. And now scientists have demonstrated that chemicals in the herb can help keep food fresh longer, too.

So, researchers in Israel and Australia are working to harness the power of basil to fortify plastic wrap. Disease-causing bacteria can thrive in the outer layers of meat and cheese. So scientists decided to add basil extracts to packaging to try to kill this bacteria. The plastic contains two extracts from basil in such small amounts that they don’t impart any flavor to the food. Instead, the extracts slowly leak from the plastic to attack and destroy bacteria cell walls.

Tests have shown that cheddar cheese wrapped in basil plastic remains bacteria-free for a week longer than cheddar wrapped in conventional plastic wrap. Scientists’ next challenge is to prevent the basil extracts from escaping into the atmosphere through the plastic. So they’re developing a wrap with an impermeable outer layer, and a porous inner layer that allows molecules to migrate toward the bacteria on the food. If all goes well, basil-fortified plastic wrap may reach stores as early as next year.

That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science. I’m Cynthia Graber.

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


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The Great Auk

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

O'CALLAHAN: Hey, hey! Dick Wheeler here. Dick Wheeler. Want to talk to you. I'm the Great Auk man. I got a call one day from Dick Wheeler, I didn't know Dick, said he'd heard a sea story of mine on the radio, wanted to talk to me about a journey. He wanted to make a 1,500-mile kayak journey, from northern Newfoundland, a place called Funk Island all the way down to Buzzard's Bay. Well, I've grown up by the sea, and I knew that was almost impossible.


CURWOOD: That's Jay O'Callahan telling the story of one man's odyssey to follow the migratory route of a now-extinct sea bird. Dick Wheeler grew up on the sea in Marshfield, Massachusetts. The winter he was 10 years old, he built a kayak with his brothers and his father. And though his life would take him in many directions, to college, to the Navy, to a lifelong career as an English teacher, building that kayak planted in him a dream he would never forget: a long paddle at sea.


CURWOOD: A half-century later, at 60 years of age, Dick Wheeler was in his kitchen one night, dinner for his wife simmering on the stove, when he picked up a book he hadn't read in years. It was called The Great Auk, and it was about a bird of the same name.

Storyteller Jay O'Callahan
(Photo: Ed Nute)

O'CALLAHAN: Somewhere over 50 million years, a decision was made inside the species of the Great Auk not to have hollow bones. It gave up flight in the air. The decision was for solid, dense bones, so it could be a great plunge diver. With the solid bones it could plunge straight down the sea 100 feet. That's a long way down. But if it needed 200, 300 feet, 400 feet, 1,000 feet, it could soar under the sea with the grace of an eagle and the ease of an eight-year-old girl in a swing. It was a magnificent bird, and smart.


CURWOOD: That dinner never got cooked. Instead, Dick Wheeler had already put in for the adventure of his life: a paddle tracking the Great Auk's migratory journey south. His wife, Sandra, said simply, "Keep the land on your right." That began two years of planning and training for his trip. Along the way, Dick learned of storyteller Jay O'Callahan. He tracked him down and asked if he would help tell the story. Recently, Dick Wheeler and Jay O'Callahan joined us in our studio, to tell and perform the story of Dick's remarkable journey. Dick told me more about the bird that inspired him.

WHEELER: Probably, the best diving bird the northern hemisphere has ever seen, perhaps in the world. It stood about two feet tall, mated for life, they laid just one egg a year, an enormous egg.

WHEELER: They existed in such numbers that the earliest ship's captains, who were used to an abundance that we've never seen, became very emotional in their logs. There were so many of these birds, they'd say, "No matter how many we kill, there will always be more." And they filled boats with them, and then they filled boats with their eggs, and then they put their flesh into barrels, and then New England fishermen went up and took them and cut their breasts out for bait for codfish. And the final blow, or close to the final blow, came when the mattress industries that were developing in the United States, in Nova Scotia, needed feathers. And having depleted the eider duck populations, someone said let's go out to Funk Island and get those Great Auks. And so they did. And they got them all.


CURWOOD: The first leg of Dick Wheeler's journey was a treacherous 40-mile paddle across the open ocean in from Funk Island, one of the Great Auk's summer breeding colonies. Then he headed south down the coast of Newfoundland in his 17-foot kayak, nicknamed "Aukie." Upon her bow he'd mounted a figurehead of the Great Auk he'd carved and painted himself. Storyteller Jay O'Callahan.

O'CALLAHAN: Paddle on the left side, paddle on the right, paddle up a wave and down the other side. Paddle on the left side, paddle on the right, paddle up a wave and down the other side. We're doing the dream, Aukie, we're doing the dream! Look at that, guillemots all around us. Beep beep beep beep beep! Well, Aukie, I'm tired. I'm going to put in right here. Look at that fisherman. Chin looks like a doorknob, looks like he's waiting for us.

"Hey boy, you're the one that come in from the Funks, boy?"

"How'd you know that?"

"Everyone in Newfoundland knows about you, boy. We heard about you on the fishing radio. You come all the way in from the Funks in that thing. I wouldn't go across the harbor in that thing, boy. How about some tea?"

Hey, when you're 60 and someone calls you "boy," makes you feel good. We went up to his house and aah, kitchen smelled good, children gathered round as if I was a Great Auk, and I sat down, had my tea, and then the woman of the house opened the oven. Took out a fresh loaf of bread. Gave me a knife. I sliced it. Steam came out and (laughs) I put potted berry jam. I love potted berry jam. (Laughs) Well, they kept looking at me, so I ate the whole loaf. An the woman of the house set down a whole plate of cod cheeks, big treat up there.

I ate that and said, "I can't move."

She said, "I would hope not, not before the caribou steaks."

"Two steaks! I said, "I can't set the tent up now."

"Of course you won't. You'll be sleeping in the bedroom."

“I can't do that; it's your bedroom."

"My husband and I love to sleep on the kitchen floor, get in there."

I call this aggressive hospitality. So the next morning, getting up she said, "Hey, boy, how far are you going today?"

"I'm still tired. Maybe ten, fifteen miles."

"Give me the chart, give me the chart, box, and I'm going to make a little "X" on the tickle. A tickle is a narrow opening in the rocks. You put in a tickle you'll smash up on the surf. Here you go. Now, boy, tell them, we shouldn't be catching the babies."


"Tell them we shouldn't be catching the babies. They're going to listen to you."

"Who's catching babies?"

"We're catching the baby codfish is what I'm talking about."

"Why are you catching the baby fish?"

"Because the government lets us. These are cold waters up here. It takes six or seven years for a cod to grow up or they don't grow up any more. Don't tell me to stop fishing; I've got the family right here. If I stop fishing everyone's going to say I'm crazy, and they'll keep fishing. But we shouldn't be catching the babies. Now tell them, please; they'll listen to you."


CURWOOD: Dick, this is a recurring theme through your trip: don't catch the babies.

WHEELER: The best illustration of that is a blackboard that I saw in one of the ports on the way down, where they had painted over a blackboard, "We will accept no cod shorter than 24 inches." The "24 inches" had been crossed out,"23 inches" written in. Twenty-three had been crossed out. Then they had written in 22 and crossed that out. And when I got to the port they were down to 19 inches. And a 19-inch cod is a very small fish. A third of the fish is head. And in fact, that's the reason they stopped the offshore fishery. The mechanical filleting machines couldn't handle the small cod. So they stopped the fishery.


CURWOOD: Dick Wheeler's trip had started out with a straightforward goal, to use the kayak as a symbol for the Great Auk and bring recognition to other sea birds. But it was quickly turning into a very literal, very immediate story about an entirely different species: fish that were not extinct but in trouble. As Dick moved south and crossed the border into Maine, he found that not everyone saw the problem in the same way.

O'CALLAHAN: Deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle dee. Aukie, we're in Maine, Maine, I love Maine, Aukie, smell that seaweed! My second home, Aukie, ho ho! Paddle on the left side, Auk you're going to go right up there. Bar Harbor. Going to go up and have a cup of coffee at that diner. When I went up, and this is late October but there are tourists all over, I could tell, they're dressed right out of the catalogues. Went into a diner and I felt uncomfortable, too big for the place. The place was jammed. Sat down to the counter.

"A cup of coffee, please."

And there's a prosperous looking couple in their late 50s beside me. The man had the half-glasses. He was reading the Times. His wife had the New Yorker. I couldn't resist. I tapped half-glasses on the shoulder and I said, "I notice the headline on the Times says ‘Storm Wreaks Havoc with Environment.’ I always thought storms were part of the environment."

Half-glasses looked over his glasses. I thought it was funny. Then the three of us looked up at CNN, the television, there was an economics professor. "We have to make choices, economic choices. For instance, if you're the whaling industry and you take a 15 percent profit for three years, the whales are gone. If you take a 10 percent profit for three years, there's a sustainable yield. What do you take?" And I said to half-glasses, "Well, of course, you take ten percent."

He said, "No, you take 15 percent for three years. Then you reinvest the capital elsewhere."

"Then the whales are gone!" I hit the coffee cup. It smashed so I got out of there.


O'CALLAHAN: I paddle along, said Aukie, look, look at that house, that's our savior. All the lights going on in that big house, it's a family come for the weekend in Maine. Maybe they'll let us tent out in the front yard. (Laughs.) So I knocked on the door. A great big red-headed fellow opened up.

I said, "I'm sorry to bother you. I'm Dick Wheeler. Can I tent out in the front yard? I'm doing 1,500 miles in a kayak."

He said, "Come on in, Rick. Come on in, Rick. Step on the newspaper, will you?"

We’re in watching the game in there. "I'll be right in. I've got a fellow Rick, he's doing 15 miles in a kayak."

"Fifteen hundred."

"Whatever, Rick, whatever. Listen, Rick, we've got to take care of one another. I'd be worried about you with a hard frost, so use the phone."

"The phone?"

"Yeah, call the motel, Rick."

(Music up and under)

WHEELER: I guess one of the things the trip taught me was that we have a different meaning for hospitality in America. You could just drift ashore in a log in Newfoundland and live in that place forever. They will truly give you the shirt off their back if it is the last shirt they have. America is quite different, and I always thought of us as a hospitable culture, but we fail if we compare ourselves to Newfoundland.

CURWOOD: And our sense of natural capital? This fellow said to you: well, if we use it up, we'll invest the profits elsewhere. What does it matter?

WHEELER: Oh, I think that's very true. You see that all the time. In our own fishing industry, when we deplete one resource we look around for something that is abundant. You'll hear people say well, we've fished out the cod, there are more mackerel out there than we'll ever be able to catch. Let's go get them. And you hear people say, well, when we've fished out the sea, we'll just learn to farm them. We did it on the land and we'll learn to do it with fish. We need to realize that the National Marine Fisheries Service has a lot of wonderful scientists in it, good, good people. But the fact is that it comes under the Department of Commerce. So the overall responsibility is to catch more fish, create more jobs, and find more markets for more.

CURWOOD: When the government brings out all the numbers about the catches and this and that, how does that resonate with you once you've been out on the water for this period of time? Do all those statistics mean anything when you ride the waves in a 17-foot-long boat?

WHEELER: The trip has convinced me that the problem is not an economic problem, as most people see it, but that it is a spiritual problem, in the sense that the relationship we have with the ocean is tragically flawed. The fact that we think it was put here for us, which links into the feeling that the best of us will get the most of what was put here for us. So there are some deep-seated spiritual values that are contributing to this, that need to change over time. And it will take time. It's going to take a dramatic change, and it will not come probably until there has been a collapse.


CURWOOD: Dick Wheeler says a spiritual awakening is one part of his trip he had a hard time expressing himself. It's one of the parts he most needed a storyteller for.

O'CALLAHAN: It's a cold November day, but all we have to do is finish up. No more excitement. Paddle on the left side, paddle on the right. Be done in 10 days, Aukie, beep beep beep beep beep beep. Aukie, did you hear some guillemots? Thought I heard guillemots. Guess not. Paddle on the left side, paddle on the right. Beep beep beep beep beep beep. Where are they, Aukie? (Makes pursing sound with lips.) Sounds like a razor belt. There's nothing here, Aukie. (Makes engine sound.) My dear child, we caught the spawning fish. Tell them they're not coming back! Aukie, oh no, oh no, come on, let's finish it up, Aukie. Work up a sweat, Aukie, so you could tear me apart. Come on, Aukie, paddle on the left side. Listen, Dick. No! Listen, my honey. No. Listen Dick. No. Listen. All right, all right, all right! (SHHH, SHHHHH.) Tell them. Tell them I cannot do it any more. (SHHH, SHHH.) Tell them I cannot cleanse myself as quickly as they foul me. (Shushing.) Tell them I cannot replenish all they rip from my womb. Tell them. (SHHH,SHHH.) Tell them. Tell them. Tell them. Tell them. (SHHH, SHHH) Aukie, did you hear? What a beautiful voice. A tired voice. (WIND SOUNDS.. SHHH, SHHHH) Beep beep beep beep beep beep. (Makes pursing sound through lips, more shushing)

CURWOOD: Portland, Maine, to Cape Cod was another 120 miles, and when Dick Wheeler finally paddled through the Cape Cod Canal, there were more than 100 people awaiting his landing.

O'CALLAHAN: November 16th, Aukie. Cape Cod Canal. That sand, look at all these people. (Laughs) Look at all these people! All you people came to (laughs) see me come in, thanks. You don't know what it meant to me. You gave me the courage to tell you what happened. Now I'm tired; I'm headed home. Dick Wheeler turned and eight of us without thinking picked up Aukie, put Aukie in the back of the pickup truck. Sandra was driving, so we watched Dick, and he was going to the passenger side, and he walked with that wonderful rhythm of the Great Auk. He got in, slammed the door. They drove off, and Dick rolled down the window. He was looking towards the sea. Deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle dee, sshhhhhh! Ssshhhh! (Wind sounds) Beep beep beep beep beep beep Ssshhhhh!


WHEELER: I really did see it as if I was being tested by the ocean itself, you know, is this guy for real or is he a faker? And the way the wind went up, you could almost hear a click as the wind went up each notch. And once I got through that barrier, it was almost as if I was visiting another world each day and then coming ashore into the world that I'd grown up in. So I was getting different understandings that really changed me forever.


CURWOOD: Since he completed his trip in November of 1991, Dick Wheeler has taken his message to hundreds of classrooms throughout the U.S. and Canada. He’s teaching about the ocean and reminding them that even things that seem abundant can be very fragile. Jay O'Callahan's story "The Spirit of the Great Auk" is available from Artana Productions in Marshfield, Massachusetts.

Related link:
Jay O’Callahan’s website

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CURWOOD: And for this week, that’s Living on Earth. We were produced for the World Media Foundation this week by Jesse Wegman, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, and Jennifer Chu. Allison Dean composed our themes. Andy Farnsworth mixes the program. I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

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