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

May 21, 2004

Air Date: May 21, 2004



Gorilla Therapy

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Part 1: As a child, Dawn Prince-Hughes was singled out on the playground as the oddball. She had few friends, and teachers grew frustrated by her seemingly lazy and inattentive behavior. She found it difficult to interact with her peers, and was easily distracted by bright lights and loud sounds. It wasn’t until her 30’s that she was diagnosed with a form of autism – a neurological disorder that affects nearly 1.5 million people in the US today. Dawn Prince-Hughes talks about her new book, “Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey through Autism,” and how an interaction at the local zoo helped her relate to the world around her.
Part 2: The conversation continues with Dawn Prince-Hughes, as she recounts her days as a volunteer at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo. During her time there, she finds she can set aside her autistic “filters” when it comes to caring for the zoo’s gorillas. In turn, dealing with the gorillas helps her to establish meaningful and lasting relationships for the first time with the people around her. (26:15)

Listener Letters

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Comments from our listeners. (02:30)

Planting the Seed / Jennifer Chu

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Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports on research that may eventually lead to customized tree stands. (01:20)

Healthy Forests Fire Up / Ingrid Lobet & Jeff Young

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Wildfire season has come early to parts of the American West and some in Congress complain the Bush administration is ill-prepared to fight or prevent fires, despite the promises of the President's healthy forests initiative. Jeff Young reports from Washington while Ingrid Lobet has a look at what's happening in the fire-prone forests of Southern California. (15:00)

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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: Dawn Prince HughesREPORTERS: Ingrid Lobet, Jeff YoungNOTE: Jennifer Chu


CURWOOD: From NPR - this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. For all her life Dawn Prince Hughes had been unable to connect with people. She dropped out of school, became homeless and lonely. Only later did she learn that autism was at the root of her troubles. There is no cure for autism. But Dawn Prince-Hughes found a way to make lasting emotional bonds. It happened one day at the Seattle Zoo when a gorilla reached out and changed her life.

HUGHES: I never really understood what it was like to be really touched by another living thing. And it happened in that instant. We stood and looked at each other for a while, and continued to let our fingers touch, and it just felt like five million years of evolution had disappeared, and each of us could walk both ways and meet in the middle.

CURWOOD: Songs of the Gorilla Nation - this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.


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

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Gorilla Therapy

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

Think autism, and Raymond may come to mind. Raymond was the autistic savant played by Dustin Hoffman in the Oscar-winning movie “Rain Man.” Raymond was an extremely introverted math whiz with a photographic memory. But if just one of his daily rituals changed in any way, he’d fly off the handle.


RAYMOND: One minute to Wapner!

CHARLIE: (MIMICKING) One minute to Wapner, one minute to Wapner, one minute to Wapner!

RAYMOND: Dah-dah, dah-dah.

CHARLIE: I know you’re in there Ray! You are in there!

RAYMOND: Dah dah…

CHARLIE: Defendants, plaintiffs, you had it all! They are in there making legal history, Ray, legal history!

RAYMOND: (MOANING) Ohhh…Oh boy, oh boy.

WOMAN: What is going on out here?

CHARLIE: I’m sorry ma’am, I lied to you. I’m very sorry about that. That man right there is my brother. If he doesn’t get to watch “People’s Court” in about 30 seconds he’s going to throw a fit right here on your porch. Now you can help me, or you can stand there and watch it happen.

CURWOOD: The symptoms for autism are now understood to be much more varied and nuanced than this movie portrays. Close to one and a half million people in the United States have some form of this neurological disorder, and many of them go undiagnosed. Author Dawn Prince Hughes remembers that as a child, her behavior was a mystery to those around her. She describes her condition this way:

[CURWOOD QUOTING] My parents were often frustrated with me because I would “walk through” or “look through” people as if they weren’t there. This phenomenon had more to do with my unawareness of where my body began and ended than with awareness of other people’s boundaries. It was as if I understood the edges of other people – disjointed as they sometimes were – but I myself had no edges.

CURWOOD: Dawn Prince Hughes has written a book about her life with autism, and how a visit to her local zoo helped her define those edges. Her book is called: “Songs of a Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism.”

She joins me now from the studios of WBEZ in Chicago. Now Dawn, in your book, you say that from time to time when you were young, you felt very different. What do you mean by that? What made you feel different?

PRINCE-HUGHES: I was aware that I had sensitivities that other people weren’t displaying. And I think it’s important to remember that at base, autism is a sensory processing challenge. And of course we know now that it follows along a spectrum. Most people think of “Rain Man” or classic autism counter syndrome. And it’s only been since 1996 that one could get a diagnosis of high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome. But what they have in common is this lack of filters that most people are just born with. So it makes it very difficult on a sensory level to cope. And then, of course, because of that, you see secondary problems like inabilities to communicate and so forth.

CURWOOD: So tell me about a sensory problem that you would have that people without this might not have to face.

PRINCE-HUGHES: When I was a kid -- I don’t struggle with this quite as much anymore -- but when I was a kid, certainly just normal levels of light were very painful. Normal levels of sound could be very painful. And my clothing could even be uncomfortable, normal cotton clothing. So again, you see this sensory over-stimulation just in normal settings.

CURWOOD: So your clothes were uncomfortable so, of course, you’re a kid you’d take them off. And then what happens?

PRINCE-HUGHES: (laughs) Well that’s when the real magic happened, because I would run around naked outside and build forts, and almost pretend I was a primate even back then before I knew what it was like to be a primate, so I think it was in my blood.

CURWOOD: So that’s the fun side, but I can imagine wanting to take off your clothes because they were uncomfortable, and not being able to handle what other people see as normal levels of light or normal levels of sound, could also make things kind of difficult.

PRINCE-HUGHES: It was. Physically it was very very challenging and uncomfortable constantly. You know, there’s a strong genetic component in autism spectrum phenomena, and my whole family was really crazy (laughs) so in a way I think that was lucky, because we all had these sensitivities and sort of made room for each other.

Where I really got into sensory difficulties though was when I started public school. And certainly I don’t think that’s unique to autistic people. I think it can be hard on everybody. But for me it was really excruciating, just the smell of other kids, having to touch chalk, having to sit still in one position and look forward, having to try to listen to the teacher when the ambient noise was deafening to me. All those things were very difficult to deal with.

CURWOOD: Mmmm. Now, what was it like with your peers? And how did the other kids treat you?

PRINCE-HUGHES: When I was younger, it was just verbal teasing. Y’know, people would call me “weirdo”, or run away from me like they were going to catch something. And then later when I was a teenager it became very physical, and I got beat up all the time, and eventually quit school because of that. I don’t think anyone ever meant me any harm. They certainly weren’t familiar with my problem. Of course no one was, it wasn’t even in the diagnostic manual yet.

CURWOOD: You know, in a lot of schools, there’s often a kid that has just what you’re describing, they get labeled as the weirdo. And it’s not that they aren’t smart, but they don’t do very well academically, they don’t seem to have any buddies. What are the odds that this kid might have this high-functioning autism?

PRINCE-HUGHES: I think the odds are very great. Y’know, people are starting to be diagnosed in record numbers. And there’s some skepticism that perhaps Asperger’s is being over-diagnosed. Just, perhaps, as ADHD was. But then you have to remember that once we have the tools, then it’s very important to identify these kids. And I read once recently that the number could be as high as one in one hundred. That’s a lot of kids that are suffering out there.

CURWOOD: So there you are in elementary school, you’re living someplace in Montana, and you come home from school -- which is a very difficult place -- but you get home and you get to be yourself and do things that you like. What were your favorite things to do as a kid?

PRINCE-HUGHES: I had several, but the one that stands out now in hindsight, looking at my career path, is I used to go down to the stream close to our house and build these Paleolithic settlements. So I would build huts of sticks and grass, and I would try to make pottery out of the clay, and I would make necklaces, and try to find plants that I could eat. And so my little Paleolithic village became my refuge.

CURWOOD: Paleolithic. That’s a big word for a little girl.

PRINCE-HUGHES: (laughs) Yeah, well you know, it’s funny, nobody’s brought this up, but since I was very very young, I was I guess what you would call a language savant, and I loved the sound of language. And I remember distinctly really liking the sound of the word “Paleolithic.”

CURWOOD: So you were fine when it came to, say, English or social studies, but do math and what would happen?

PRINCE-HUGHES: Well, disaster would happen (laughs). I still don’t balance my checkbook, it’s a nightmare. I just kind of intuitively guess how much money is in my bank account. So yeah, writing and reading were always natural to me. I talked at a very early age, was reading things like D.H. Lawrence when I was nine, and just really enjoying it, really understanding it. Got into the Philosophers like Kant when I was in about seventh grade…

CURWOOD: Kant in seventh grade?

PRINCE-HUGHES: I did. I did, and…

CURWOOD: Oh, my.

PRINCE-HUGHES: (laughs) But math, y’know, I was just a complete idiot, it’s embarrassing. I still, I just don’t even go there.

CURWOOD: So what other seventh graders, or even adults, could you find to discuss Kant with?

PRINCE-HUGHES: None. It was very lonely. I mean, even my parents, who certainly were philosophically inclined, I think they were interested in ideas, but we were very poor and they didn’t have time really to do a lot of studying or contemplating. So I really didn’t have anybody to speak of.

CURWOOD: In getting ready to talk with you, Dawn, I noticed that you had a PHD, but also that you were a high school dropout.


CURWOOD: So tell me, what happened? Why did you drop out of school?

PRINCE-HUGHES: It was a combination of things. I just mentioned that I had been reading Kant in seventh grade, and I became convinced that I needed to tell the truth in all situations regardless of consequence. And I had known for some time that I was gay, and so in this tiny little town in Montana in the summer of my eighth grade year, I applied my Kantian philosophy full-force and came out to the whole town. And so where I had been really strange and y’know, weird, and people called me names and pushed me around before -- then I really became a target. And my parents were concerned that I would be really harmed. And we talked about it and that’s when I decided that I would leave home.

CURWOOD: So tell me what happens next. You’re how old?

PRINCE-HUGHES: Sixteen. I ended up homeless for about five years off and on, and I self-medicated with a lot of drugs and alcohol, and just wandered around. Wherever I could find people to take me in, or whoever was traveling to the next city, I would go. Eventually I found myself in Seattle, still homeless. I used to go out to the dance clubs to get warm and kind of be around people knowing I wouldn’t have to talk to them. And I had an acquaintance come to me one day and say, y’know, you’re a pretty good dancer, you should think about being an erotic dancer. And I said, well, I can’t do that, that’s really kind of beneath me. And she pointed out that I was homeless (laughs).

CURWOOD: You were broke?


CURWOOD: So you’re in these -- you don’t have much in the way of friends, but you’re going to these clubs to be with people, but not be with people. Explain that to me a little bit, would you?

PRINCE-HUGHES: I was mostly interested in just being somewhere other than the street, because y’know, being on the street is difficult. And so I knew people, I recognized people, and that gave me some distant sense of community. I mean, there’s kind of a myth that autistic people don’t want any community, they don’t have that need for friendship. And that’s not necessarily true. I mean, in some cases it is, but oftentimes it’s just a matter of people not finding the right people to have things in common with. So I would go out and go to these clubs and y’know, feel a certain sense of belonging, I guess.

CURWOOD: So you would go to these clubs just to dance by yourself, and like, off privately, or for people to watch you?

PRINCE-HUGHES: I wasn’t really concerned whether people were watching me or not. And that was certainly true of my professional dancing as well. I danced for myself. I liked listening to the steady beat was a lot like, y’know, you see autistic people rocking. I mean, that was basically the sensory equivalent.

But I would add that both the dance club and the place where I worked formerly were very industrial atmospheres, very alienating. I had grown up in nature and always had that connection with nature and animals. And so it was with one of my first paychecks from dancing that I decided to go out to the zoo, and of course that was the moment that changed my life when I met the gorillas there.

CURWOOD: We have to take a break right now. My guest is Dawn Prince Hughes, author of: “Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey through Autism.” And in just a minute we’ll ask her how her encounters with a band of gorillas at the local zoo changed her life. We’ll be right back with Living on Earth.


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

If you’re just tuning in, my guest is author Dawn Prince Hughes, who has written a book called: “Songs of a Gorilla Nation; My Journey Through Autism.” And as we’ve heard so far, autism can be both a gift and a curse.

Dawn, before the break, you were telling us about the time after you left your home and your family, and essentially took to the streets. We were just about to get to the point when you experienced something that you say, “changed your life forever.” Could you take us there now, to the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle? That’s where you volunteered as a zookeeper. Please describe for us though that first day.

PRINCE-HUGHES: Showing up at the gate was difficult, because I knew I was going to have to deal with the ticket taker, and I really didn’t like to interact with people. So that was a challenge, but I was determined. So I went ahead, paid my money and went in, and immediately felt somewhat more relaxed. I looked at the trees and listened to the birds, and wandered around looking at the usual animals. I remember visiting the giraffes and the hippos and things. But then I turned the corner and saw the gorilla family sitting there, and had this instant epiphany that these were a sort of people. I guess intuitively I understood they were people that could understand me, and that I could understand in turn.

CURWOOD: So what did you do?

PRINCE-HUGHES: I sat down and I watched them, and I felt my body relax for probably the first time in my whole life, y’know, relaxed to that degree. I felt like I was in good company, real company, immediate company. The gorilla culture is very slow moving and very predictable, and they don’t make a lot of eye contact, which again reduces that extra level of intensity in communication. And so I just felt as though I had come home.

CURWOOD: Eventually you got a job at the zoo, and…in your book you movingly describe perhaps another life-changing moment for you, when your hand is gently touched by a huge silverback named Congo as you’re putting strawberries, uh, in front of his cage. Can you tell me that story and what you think happened in that interaction?

PRINCE-HUGHES: Sure. Congo, my dearest friend ever, who is unfortunately no longer with us, was the gorilla who I think changed my life the most. I had gotten several different positions at the zoo -- some volunteer, they were related to my schooling, going back to university -- and some were paid. But I was working with Congo in the back, in the office where the gorillas’ night rooms adjoin the office, and lining strawberries up. And in a very typically autistic fashion, making sure they lined up between the bars absolutely perfectly (laughs). Of course his only interest was just eating strawberries, right? So he didn’t care what position they were in, so he was eating them much faster than I put them down.

And so while I was absorbed in my task, he caught up to my hand. And as I put a strawberry down, he put his hand over my hand. And I remember just stopping dead still, and looking up into his eyes -- which was significant, because he was face to face with me, y’know, inches away, and I was looking into his eyes. And I didn’t feel compelled to turn away. I felt his touch, I really felt his touch. And when people had touched me before, I had constructed so many filters, artificial filters, that I never really understood what it was like to be really touched by another living thing. And it happened in that instant. We stood and looked at each other for a while, and continued to let our fingers touch, and it just felt like five million years of evolution had disappeared, and each of us could walk both ways and meet in the middle.

Dawn Prince-Hughes with a gorilla family (Photo: Robynne Sapp)

CURWOOD: You say you had filtered touch in earlier…what do you mean by that?

PRINCE-HUGHES: Almost like bracing for it. If your clothing is painful, then you can imagine what other kinds of pressure would feel like. And I hasten to say though that other autistic people feel that they really enjoy firm touch. They really like to be touched a lot, because, and I think the reason is, once again, it gives them a sense of barrier, a sense of containment that they don’t usually feel. But that wasn’t my experience. I mean, it wasn’t always painful, but it was rarely spontaneous, and rarely just unequivocally enjoyable.

CURWOOD: Must have made it hard for you to be in relationships with people.

PRINCE-HUGHES: Yes, it was very hard. I sort of approached it from a robotic point of view, I guess. I did date people, uh, I think mostly for the intellectual challenge of figuring out how to do it (laughs). But I didn’t understand what I was supposed to be feeling really until I met my current partner.

CURWOOD: Now, sometimes, as I understand it, people with Asperger’s syndrome are also described as having a non-verbal learning disability. That is, they don’t read non-verbal cues very well. I’m wondering if that’s something that you experienced at all.

PRINCE-HUGHES: Yes it is, and I think we have to back up a step and ask what the origin of that problem actually is. I believe that it again stems from a sensory processing challenge. Because if all of your energy is going into putting order, imposing order on the chaos, the sensory chaos around you, you’re not going to be able to pay attention.

That still happens to me now. I was doing a radio interview I guess last month now, and the guy was wonderful, we were having a great conversation, but they had sound batting along the walls, it was bright blue and it had stripes. And because of the vibrancy of the color, and the way that the stripes gave the optical illusion of motion, I could not track what he was saying, I could not track his facial expressions, I got completely lost. And thank god we were taping and not live (laughs). But yeah, those challenges still occur for me, and certainly they are part of Asperger’s syndrome.

CURWOOD: I’m wondering if you could talk about the kind of symptoms that you have as a person with Asperger’s, that we haven’t covered so far, and how that has affected your relationships -- particularly now that you have a partner and a child.

PRINCE-HUGHES: I think the one thing that really springs to mind, because it’s so problematic for so many people on the autism spectrum, is the phenomenon of meltdown. Rage attacks. That has had a disastrous effect on my relationships. What happens is that the environment becomes so attacking, so, on a sensory level, so overwhelming, that you basically tumble down into your deepest animal urges and start to lash out. Once it’s started, it has to run its course and it can be very scary. I’ve never hurt anyone. I’ve thrown things and yelled and cowered in a corner. But I know other autistic people have hurt people, so that comes to mind.

And also, again I hear from parents a lot, what can we do to help our child with Asperger’s or autism spectrum communicate, and I just reassert that sensory problems have to be dealt with before you see progress in any other areas.

CURWOOD: Hmm. And how do you deal with sensory problems?

PRINCE-HUGHES: Just by lessening sensory stimulation. Um, a dark room. I often have to recuperate from giving public talks, for instance. So I’ll go in my room and turn on a red light because the red light screens out the rest of the colors of light on the spectrum. And I’ll turn the heat up because I find heat comforting. I will slip on some silk or maybe get into a sleeping bag that’s made of nylon. So on all the levels, sensory levels, I just turn everything down. So I urge parents and autistic people themselves to take control in that way, it’s very helpful.

CURWOOD: Now you were diagnosed with Asperger’s at, what, age 36? So I’m just wondering why did it take so long for you to get this diagnosis, and how did the diagnosis happen?

PRINCE-HUGHES: Well, two reasons it took so long. One, as I mentioned, the diagnosis itself was not available until 1996 when it was finally included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Number Four, which is what mental healthcare providers use to make diagnoses. So that was reason number one. Reason number two, you do find on the spectrum that people often will implement their intelligence to cope and learn strategies to blend in a little better.

It’s interesting, the way I got my diagnosis. I mentioned rage attacks and well, I had them a lot. And my partner said, look, figure out what’s going on, or I’m leaving. And I knew I couldn’t let that happen because we had a son by then, and my family was the most important thing in the world to me.

So I did a lot of research and determined that I had Asperger’s Syndrome, called my mother and father and my sister, and everyone who ever knew me, and interviewed them for hours getting a history of my symptoms. And then I cross-referenced them on the computer with the diagnostic criteria at every age. So I had about an inch-thick stack of papers (laughs) that was my case file. And then I called the psychiatrist, and said…

CURWOOD: Okay (laughs).

PRINCE-HUGHES: (laughs)…and said hi, I need a diagnosis of Asperger’s, I’ve made it very easy for you, when can I see you? And she laughed about that and said she could probably diagnosis me on the phone (laughs).

CURWOOD: I understand that in some cases people with Asperger’s function a lot better if they have kind of a broker, or intermediary in their life. Somebody close to them who can interpret what is going on. How accurate is that?

PRINCE-HUGHES: I think that’s probably pretty accurate. Sometimes it ends up being our partners, who, bless their souls, probably can’t stand to be bored (laughs) so that’s how they end up with us. I’d like to think we offer something in return. But I joke about my partner being sort of Anne Sullivan to my Helen Keller, because I get lost still. We’ll go to parties, and people will be laughing about something, or say something to me, and I don’t know if it’s to be taken literally or not. So we’ll have debriefing sessions where my partner will have to interpret for me, really. So yeah, I bet that’s common.

CURWOOD: So dealing with gorillas, you can’t use verbalizations to communicate with them. I mean, other than some very basic ones, I suppose, a bark or grunt or something. It’s gotta mostly be non-verbal.

PRINCE-HUGHES: That’s exactly right. At least so far as the gorillas are not involved in language studies. I mean, certainly we know that there are gorillas that understand English, they understand sign language. And other apes like chimps and bonobos, orangutans that are involved in language study programs, have an amazing grasp of human language. But yes, it was, for me, with the gorillas at the zoo who were not trained in human language, it was primarily non-verbal communication.

CURWOOD: So I’m wondering if in this process of communicating with them, that there was something special that you learned?

PRINCE-HUGHES: Well, they taught me how to be a human being. They taught me how to be joyful, they taught me how to understand sadness, they taught me how to understand humor among them and among human people. And they also taught me a sense of responsibility. And that has been so important because, even thought it was very sad, I remember sitting there one day with them thinking, okay, they’ve given me my person-hood, they’ve given me humanity as a gift, and now I have to go out. I have to leave them, go out in the world and do something good with my life.

CURWOOD: Dawn Prince-Hughes is an adjunct professor of anthropology at Western Washington University, and she’s author of “Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey through Autism.” Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today.

PRINCE-HUGHES: Sure, nice talking to you.


Related link:
Random House: Author Spotlight (Dawn Prince-Hughes, Ph.D.)

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Listener Letters

CURWOOD: Time now for comments from you, our listeners.


CURWOOD: Our story about the new crop of super-clean, fuel-thrifty cars coming onto the market inspired plenty of e-mail traffic. Many who wrote in appreciated the focus on greener driving options. Others took exception not at what was included in our report, but what was left out.

“While Ingrid Lobet’s piece was interesting, I was rather surprised that she did not mention diesel automobiles,” writes Mark Wilson, who hears Living on Earth on WVPR in Vermont.

He notes that diesel cars get superior mileage compared to gas ones and declares that when the European automobile manufacturers such as VW and Mercedes introduce diesel hybrids, mileage will far surpass any gas hybrid.

Reid Pallady, a listener to Jefferson Public Radio in Ashland, Oregon, lamented the omission of another clean car technology from our round-up. “There is an alternative fuel on the market right now that is being treated by the media like a step-child,” he writes.

“It’s called biodiesel. Made from any vegetable oil, methanol or ethanol and a small quantity of lye, it could immediately take a huge chunk out of our foreign oil consumption if just used in all diesels on the road today. Who needs to go hybrids?”

Jennings Heilig,, who hears us on WVTF in Roanoke, Virginia, curbed his enthusiasm for the cleaner car technologies we described. He’s waiting for cars powered exclusively by renewable energy sources.

“I came to the conclusion a long time ago that America will never end its affair with the automobile,” he writes. “What we will have to end our love affair with is non-renewable fossil fuels. Getting more miles to a tank of fuel is an outstanding first step, “he writes, but what would really get him excited is “an affordable, efficient way to harness the sun and/or wind energy that is going to waste now.”

Mister Heilig,, I ask you to please check out our website, Living on Earth dot org, for last week’s program on the latest developments regarding the renewable energy source – hydrogen. And in upcoming programs we are planning to examine the role that diesel and biodeisel vehicles may play in our transportation future.

Your comments on our program are always welcome. Call our listener line anytime at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-99-88. Or write us at 20 Holland Street, Somerville, Massachusetts 02144. Our e-mail address is comments@loe.org. And you can hear this program, and all our previous programs, for that matter, by visiting our web site Living on Earth dot org. That's Living on Earth dot org.

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Planting the Seed

CURWOOD: Just ahead: with “fire season” upon us we take the pulse of the nation’s forests in year one of the Bush Administration’s Healthy Forest Initiative. First, this note on emerging science from Jennifer Chu.


CHU: Picture row upon row of hardwood trees planted for the sole purpose of becoming furniture. Or trees perfect for paper production. These genetically-engineered “trees of the future” may not be that far off. Scientists have now figured out a way to quickly identify the genes that control specific traits in poplar trees.

To get the perfect flower color or the meatiest apple, growers mate parent plants that hold desirable traits. But there’s no guarantee the pairing will pay off. And because of the long life-span of trees, it could take decades to complete a test cycle.

But with the new approach scientists can see results in about a year. Researchers randomly inserted foreign pieces of DNA into the poplar genome. This infiltrator exactly mimics the expression pattern of a poplar gene, which in turn provides clues about that gene’s function.

For example, one scientist hopes to grow trees the way we grow houseplants – by taking a cutting, putting it in water, and having it take root. He’s identified 35 out of the poplar’s 36,000 genes that likely play a role in root formation. Next, he’ll try to transfer a houseplant’s genes into the poplar genome to see if he can get an entire poplar tree to take root in water.

That’s this week’s note on emerging science, I’m Jennifer Chu.


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

ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and: Aveda - an Earth-conscious beauty company committed to preserving natural resources and finding more sustainable ways of doing business. Information available at Aveda dot com; The Noyce Foundation, dedicated to improving Math and Science instruction from kindergarten through grade 12; The Annenberg Foundation; and, The Kellogg Foundation, helping people help themselves by investing in individuals, their families, and their communities. On the web at WKKF dot org. This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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Healthy Forests Fire Up

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

Like the Christmas shopping season, wildfire season seems to come a little earlier each year in the American west. California and Arizona have already seen fires and the forecast for much of the interior west shows an elevated risk for fire this summer.

Last year’s devastating blazes in southern California pushed Congress to act on the Bush administration’s controversial plan to thin trees to reduce the risk of fire—a plan called “Healthy Forests.” As the healthy forests program takes shape it’s also generating healthy debate in communities near national forests and in the halls of Congress.

We’ll have two reports, one from California where forest thinning to protect homes against wildfires is underway. But we start in Washington, D.C. where some lawmakers are questioning the administration’s readiness for what looks like another tough fire season. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young has our report.

MAN: Subcommittee is meeting today to hear testimony on firefighting preparedness. Are we ready for 2004 fire season?

YOUNG: After years of patching together emergency funds to pay billion dollar bills for fighting forest fires, Congress is taking a hard look at the Bush administration’s preparation for this fire season. So far they don’t like much of what they see.

INSLEE: Rome burned while Nero fiddled, and I believe this year we’re going to have our forests burning because the government has fiddled and not become adequately prepared for what will be a major fire season.

YOUNG: Washington Democratic Representative Jay Inslee summed up the concerns of many lawmakers, as Forest Service and Agriculture department officials took fire from both houses and both parties. Lawmakers say the agencies have again underestimated what they’ll need to fight fires, and will have to drain money from other important programs to cover the costs. That’s something New Mexico Republican Senator Pete Domenici would rather avoid.

DOMENICI: Are we making a mistake in not putting enough in? Are you giving us the wrong estimates? Or just why do we have to continually borrow from Peter to pay Paul?

YOUNG: Lawmakers say programs designed to prevent fires are losing out. The administration’s budget proposal cuts a popular program called Firewise, which helps homeowners reduce fire risk. Spending on surveys to find the insect and disease damaged trees that can easily catch fire is also down. And California Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein complains of a 40 percent cut in assistance for state and local fire prevention efforts.

FEINSTEIN: That’s a dramatic cut. I’m hearing from fire safe councils all throughout the state with real concern.

YOUNG: But the harshest criticism was leveled at the administration’s new Healthy Forests Initiative, and some of it came from the administration’s supporters. Wyoming Republican Senator Craig Thomas pressed assistant Agriculture secretary Mark Rey for details on what’s been done to reduce the dead and damaged trees.

REY: What’s happened is we hit an all-time record of 2.6 million acres treated last year. That’s the most --

THOMAS: Treated? What do you mean treated?

RAY: Thinned, fuel reduced.

THOMAS: Where?

RAY: Throughout the country, including some in Wyoming. I’ll take you out and show you some in Wyoming.

THOMAS: I’ll take you out and show you some where there’s tons of beetle kill that’s never been touched. I’ll take you to the Shoshone and they have a plan that’s never been implemented.

YOUNG: Rey told Thomas it takes time to implement a new program, find workers, and overcome general bureaucratic inertia. He says nearly three million acres will be thinned this year, but the ultimate goal of 80 to 90 million acres could take more than a decade.

REY: But realistically that’s what it’s gonna take, eight to 12 years. It took us one hundred years to get into this situation and we’re not going to get out of it overnight.

YOUNG: Still, the slow rate of work infuriates the Senate Democrats who broke ranks with their party in the midst of last fall’s fires to vote for the President’s initiative. Ron Wyden of Oregon says the administration’s spending does not live up to promises in the bill.

WYDEN: You all are taking the health out of the healthy forests program! I think that there is going to be enormous frustration out in rural America which is expecting these new funds to get the important work done. And you all are basically doing a bait and switch!

CURWOOD: As lawmakers on Capitol Hill haggle over healthy forest spending, we took a look at how that money is being put to use in the places the policy is supposed to protect. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet visited one fire-prone region in Southern California and found the fuel reduction program in full swing in the San Bernardino National Forest.


LOBET: The alpine towns of Southern California's San Bernardino mountains were already adapting to change. Older pine cabins for fishing and skiing -- and a few thousand year-round residents --- had been making room for K-Mart and car rentals as newcomers swelled the towns that now push up against the national forest.


LOBET: These days many of the newcomers are loggers who almost overnight have turned this from a logging-free zone into a timber festival. Captain Steve Faris of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection looks down with awe on a 15-acre stretch of log piles.

FARIS: We've identified over 137 contractors working in the mountains here. I think this site represents about 25 of them. Every state in the union has people here.

LOBET: One hundred thirty-seven contractors, 600-plus trees coming down every day. Hundreds of tons of limbs and logs moving through this makeshift mill site. It's all part of a massive push to cut down dead trees in a forest turned brown with stress.


FARIS: Yes, all that you see here represents dead, dying and diseased trees off of public and private lands. That's all we're taking out at this time.

LOBET: The forests here are starving for water after six straight years of drought. They've grown in too close together, foresters say, and so they compete for sparse rain. Some say air pollution also weakens the trees. Then, bark beetles finish them off. Faris shows me a piece of bark.

Woodpeckers take advantage of the holes first excavated by bark beetles (Photo: Ingrid Lobet)

FARIS: Right here you see the remains of a pitch tube. This is where the tree attempted to push the bark beetle out by pushing pitch out the hole where the bark beetle was attempting to come in. Normally they can do that fairly well, but the population is so high now that even the most healthy trees are being overwhelmed by the numbers of bark beetles that attack it.

YOUNG: Mountain residents say they've been pleading for help with the dead trees for several years. They see the dead needles as gunpowder awaiting a spark. Then, the spark came. After last fall's disastrous fires turned about 3,500 homes into ash, the congressional spigot opened wide. Two hundred and sixty million dollars is now flowing to Southern California, an amount other drought-stricken regions can scarcely imagine. For foresters like Steve Faris, the money means headway.

FARIS: We've taken out a huge number of trees. We're not keeping up with the mortality rate from the bark beetle, but we're starting to catch up and we're seeing a lot of good results.

LOBET: Making the 180 degree turn from no tree-cutting to full-bore tree removal has been hard on mountain residents of every stripe, says Laura Dyberg.


DYBERG: A lot of people's attitudes are similar to what mine was back in 1997, when I came out of a movie theater and saw my entire mountain on fire. There's huge mushroom clouds of smoke, black, white, and flames that could be seen. My reaction was not worry about my friends, my family, my home, my pets. My initial concern was, if I was going to have to take the long way to get home. But that was my reaction. And the reason was is our fire agencies do their job. They put fires out! And I think, unfortunately, that is a very prevalent attitude in mountain communities and rural communities. We rely on these heroes to do their job, and it never occurs to us that sometimes it’s beyond them. That's a hard thing. The fire engine will not be in your driveway. You know, the air tanker will not be dropping fire retardant on your house.

LOBET: So now, as a local director of a fire safe council, Dyberg plays evangelist -- cajoling people to move cordwood off their porches, take down trees as soon as the beetles get them, and relinquish long-held views about architectural preservation.

DYBERG: At one point they even required shingled roofs because of the aesthetic -- again, the mountain environment.

LOBET: Just then a man in a hardhat waves us to a stop.

DYBERG: We’re coming up on a tree cutting operation, it would appear.

LOBET: This is just something that happens every single day.

DYBERG: Every single day. Now I might be stopped three or four times for logging trucks pulling on the highways, actual crane -- there goes part of a logging trip – crane operations.

The path of The Old Fire of 2003 is still evident in the San Bernadino Mountains (Photo: Ingrid Lobet)

LOBET: Tree cutting in the San Bernardino mountain towns, in fact, is so constant now that it is actually changing the appearance of Lake Arrowhead, so familiar to generations of Californians. In some places, broadleaf trees now predominate. That would have been unthinkable just a few months ago in this land of signature ponderosa pine. You can even see through the forest.

DYBERG: Two years ago you couldn't see half these houses, because the trees were so dense. People have seen neighbors now that they didn't know they had.

LOBET: Dyberg turns down a narrow road and into a former neighborhood now carpeted with ash.


LOBET: Piles of burnt box-springs and exploded propane tanks line the road.


LOBET: This was Cedar Glen, a tightly packed community of homes in the middle of the woods and the county doesn't want it rebuilt.

The former community of Cedar Glen
(Photo: Ingrid Lobet)

DYBERG: They cannot rebuild the way they were. They’d be totally out of code again – that’s why this entire community burned down. No way


HENYON: There's my iris coming up!

LOBET: Shannon Henyon steps down from a new trailer. She is one of the few former residents who still lives here. What she wants you to know about her is that she's an artist and a Christian. And what you notice is her lack of self-pity, though she's recently lost her husband and her father, and all her tools burned in the fire.

Shannon Henyon walks among the remains of her house.
(Photo: Ingrid Lobet)

HENYON: I love my community because it is so unique. Everybody lived the way they wanted to live. And people who don't want to be with other people, they want to be alone, or people who want a little place to just come to on the weekends or whatever. There were a lot of those. Kind of misfits.

LOBET: Henyon blames the fire that destroyed her home on the forest service for not thinning nearby, and on county officials who she says discouraged neighbors from cutting trees.

HENYON: I'm going to rebuild. I don't care what they say. They could declare it eminent domain and take it from me. And I won’t leave if they do. They’re going to have to drag me off. This is my home, and I brought up my children here, I raised my family here. This is where I belong.

LOBET: As Henyon augers for a fight, trees are falling outside communities in the surrounding forest. Forest Service Manager Mike Dietrich says he can clear 200-foot-wide swaths of fire buffer now without any protests from environmentalists. No more burning forest service officials in effigy. But he's exhausted, and so is everyone else he knows.

DIETRICH: We're all, to use the expression, busier than a one-handed paperhanger. It's just been incredible. Six days a week, actually some of us seven days a week.

LOBET: The Bush administration's Healthly Forests policy is helping move things along too, he says, because it allows him to go forward with thinning projects with no chance of an environmental appeal. But finding qualified workers in the numbers he now needs has been rough.

DIETRICH: It's been very difficult, to say the least, ramping up for this. Because you don't go from zero to 90 overnight. The money that Congress has allocated has been very generous. I’d like to be going faster.

LOBET: For once, it seems, most everyone in this part of California can agree on what's needed to bring aid to a sick forest. The weather could still outrun them, still, they have the funds to make a go of it. But, my colleague Jeff Young has been talking to people elsewhere in the nation who say federal dollars that are supposed to prevent fires are not helping their communities.

YOUNG: Sharon Galbreath usually sees forest issues from a green point of view—she directs the Arizona environmental group Souwthwest Forest Alliance. But when she looks at what’s happening in Southern California’s forests it is with the green eye of envy. Galbreath says she’d like to see such well-funded fuel thinning projects underway close to Arizona’s homes and communities. Instead, she fears a repeat of what happened in Summerhaven, Arizona last year.

GALBREATH: The community of Summerhaven was so desperate for funds to thin the forest around their community that they took the unusual step of actually petitioning the government to release close to one million dollars that would have been necessary to adequately thin the forest around their community on Mount Lemon. Instead, the forest service ended up with $170,00 that summer, which was too little too late as it turned out.

YOUNG: Too late because last June much of Summerhaven burned, along with some 85,000 acres of forest. Galbreath says while the forest service found little money to thin the trees around Summerhaven, it had no trouble funding a timber sale in a patch of old growth forest near the Grand Canyon.

GALBREATH: Yeah, the stated purpose for the East Rim project is forest health and fire reduction --even though the nearest community is 48 miles away.

YOUNG: Administration’s critics say that’s the main problem with Healthy Forests. Too much money is spent on projects too far from homes. Michael Francis heads the national forest program for the Washington-based Wilderness Society. Francis says scientists know that thinning in what’s called the wildland/urban interface – the area where homes border forests -- can dramatically improve a home’s chances in a fire.

FRANCIS: And the closer in the better. Right now the fire science tells us that within a quarter to a half a mile of a community, that that type of work will offer a 90 percent better chance of protecting those communities – people’s homes, protecting their lives, and protecting their communities. Going outside that half- to quarter-mile zone around a community we’re experimenting here. We ought to take it slow. It should be driven by science.

YOUNG: The Healthy Forests Act requires only half the thinning projects to take place near homes. Assistant Agriculture Secretary Mark Rey says some of the thinning work needs to happen in remote areas.

REY: Over 60 percent of the work is being done in wildland/urban interface. But we’ve also said that’s not the only area we want to treat, that there are other priorities like municipal watersheds or other areas where we have ecologically-sensitive resources we’re trying to protect.

YOUNG: But the wilderness society’s Francis sees another motive.

FRANCIS: My guess is that they’re doing it because of timber industry. The forest service sees that there are a lot of big trees out there that the industry wants. They’re economic and profitable trees. That way they can get out there and do that work and reward their friends in the timber industry.

YOUNG: The administration’s budget, which cuts spending for fire prevention and suppression, increases spending for the forest service to carry out timber sales. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.

CURWOOD: You can see maps showing the nation’s fire forecast and read tips on how to protect your home from wildfire on our Web site, livingonearth.org.


Related links:
- WFAS - Wildland Fire Assessment System
- Wildfire Central
- Fire Sciences Lab
- Firewise.org
- National Fire Plan

Back to top


CURWOOD: And for this week - that's Living on Earth. Next week – the film “The Day After Tomorrow” brings Hollywood’s version of catastrophic climate change to theatres on Memorial Day. The film’s villains are an army of storms triggered by the disruption of warming currents in the Atlantic Ocean that ravage entire cities - including New York.


MAN: A wall of water coming towards New York City!

CURWOOD: But now some scientists say “The Day After Tomorrow” is today. Their research shows that climate change is already affecting New York in ways that one day may rival the Hollywood version.

GORNITZ:You’re sort of on a collision course between the heavy development that's happening along the coast and the gradual rise in sea level. But superimposed on that the storm surges that are inevitably going to happen. So you have the potential for a lot of damage, destruction of property and, hopefully not, but possible loss of life too.

CURWOOD: It’s “Degrees of Concern” – next time on Living on Earth, produced in cooperation with WNYC in New York. And between now and then you can hear us anytime and get the stories behind the news by going to Living on Earth dot org. That’s Living on Earth dot org.


CURWOOD: Before we go – one last trek into the mountains of California, where each year at this time birdsong and the drumming of woodpeckers can be heard as the snow melts and summer heads up the High Sierras.

[EARTHEAR: “Sierran Snowbelt” QUIET PLACE: A SOUND WALK ACROSS NATURAL CALIFORNIA (The Oakland Museum of Californa – 2001)]

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced for the World Media Foundation by Chris Ballman, Christopher Bolick, Eileen Bolinsky, Jennifer Chu, Ingrid Lobet, Susan Shepherd and Jeff Young. You can find us at Living on Earth dot org. Our technical director is Paul Wabreck. Al Avery runs our Web site. Alison Dean composed our themes. Special thanks to Ernie Silver and Carl Lindemann. Environmental sound art courtesy of Earthear. I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes form the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm – organic yogurt, cultured soy, and smoothies. Ten percent of their profits are donated to support environmental causes and family farms. Learn more at Stonyfield.com. Support also comes from NPR member stations, the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the Town Creek Foundation.

ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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