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

August 4, 2006

Air Date: August 4, 2006



Water Permeable Concrete / Conrad Fox

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Mexico City gets almost 30 inches of rain each year, but most of it runs out to the ocean through extensive drainage systems. During the summer rains, the streets flood and the aquifers are not refilling fast enough to keep the water supply at a constant level. A group of entrepreneurs believe they have a solution to the city’s water problems with a material called "Ecocreto." Conrad Fox reports. (09:00)

Re-designing Cities / Hillary Brown

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Architect Hillary Brown offers some tips on how to make the most of miles of concrete and pavement rights-of-way in big cities. (03:00)

The Long Walk / Bill McKibben

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Bill McKibben spent three weeks backpacking from Vermont to New York, and along the way, discovered the people who lived on the land had very different ways of life, depending on which side of Lake Champlain they lived. Host Steve Curwood talks with McKibben about his new book, "Wandering Home: A Long Walk Across America's Most Hopeful Landscape." (09:00)

Coral Talk / Allan Coukell

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Producer Allan Coukell listens to the sounds of a reef, and tells us how fish use sound to find their way around. (02:15)

Lightning Strikes

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For the past 40 years, according to the National Weather Service, lightning has been the second largest storm killer in the U.S. Nearly 70 people are killed each year by lightning, and those who survive bear symptoms that can last for years. Russ Francis is one who survived, and he talks with host Steve Curwood about the storm that changed his life. (05:30)

Emerging Science Note/Parroting Elephants / Jennifer Chu

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Living on Earth's Jennifer Chu reports that elephants have a knack for imitation, whether it's the sounds of other elephants or trucks. (01:20)

Mad about Magpies / Guy Hand

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Producer Guy Hand tells the story of the much-maligned Magpie, the bird everyone loves to hate, and why the critter deserves a break. (15:00)

This week's EarthEar selection
listen / download

A pair of nightingales trill through the forest of Kent, England.

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Hillary Brown, Russ Francis, Bill McKibben
REPORTERS: Allan Coukell, Conrad Fox, Guy Hand


CURWOOD: From NPR - this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. Not many people get struck by lightning, but for those who do, it can be a long road back. We have one man’s electrifying tale.

FRANCIS: I still have terrible headaches, I had a lot of trouble with dizziness and that. They did a functional MRI and they found out the one side of my brain had pretty much got sizzled by it.

CURWOOD: Surviving the shock of lightning. Also, the bird everyone loves to hate.

J.D.: I don’t know anybody that likes magpies…

TAYLOR: To wake up every morning to screeching magpies.

WAJ: I’m not sure I would hate them as much if it weren’t for the fact that so many other people seem to hate them.

CURWOOD: Despite that pushy magpies – like their cousins, the crows and blue jays – can offend some people, scientists say heckle and jeckle play an important role in nature.


CURWOOD: Those stories and more – this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.


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


Water Permeable Concrete

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is an encore edition of Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Like many cities, Mexico City is strapped for water, and for cash. Water treatment facilities and new supply pipes are badly needed, but they’d bust the municipal budget. Now a group of local inventors believe they’ve found a surprisingly simple, and economic solution to the city’s water woes. Conrad Fox has our story.


FOX: You wouldn't think the twenty million residents of Mexico City would have to worry about their water supply; they get more than 27 inches of rain every year. But most of that rain never makes it to a tap. Instead, one of the most extensive drainage systems in the world channels it straight out of the city and to the sea.


VOICEOVER: Mexico City gets very short, very intense rains during the summer. We've got to be very efficient about draining the water. And if we don’t get rid of it quickly, not even the Lord our Father could prevent this city from flooding.

FOX: That's Juan Carlos Guasch, technical director of Mexico City’s water system. Flooding is a serious problem in many parts of the city, but keeping streets dry is only half the challenge Guasch’s department faces. The other half is making sure residents still have enough to drink. And at the moment, he says, he's fighting a losing battle.


VOICEOVER: Seventy percent of our water comes from about 450 wells in the city. Some rain does recharge the aquifer but not fast enough. In the south of the city the water table is dropping about a meter a year. That’s not good. In fact, it's extremely bad.

FOX: No one knows for sure just how much water is left in the Mexico City aquifer, although most think a crisis is not far off. But what worries Guasch is that as the aquifer depletes, concentrations of manganese and other dangerous elements make the drinking water almost unusable. And that’s not the only consequence of a sinking water table.


FOX: On a busy sidewalk in the center of Mexico City, Jesus Esteva, a consulting engineer for the city works department, points out the crumbling pavement at the base of an old art deco building. Parts of the sidewalk have heaved upwards, and passersby are forced to step around the rubble. The problem, says Esteva, is related to what lies below the concrete of Mexico City.


VOICEOVER: It's built over jello. What was once a lake. The ground is very soft clay and water. Most of Mexico City's water comes from the same ground, and as it is pumped out, the ground dries out and sinks. In places you can have sinking up to a meter.

FOX: The problem dates back to the early 17th century when the Spanish drained Lake Texcoco, which covered much of the Valley of Mexico, to build their new capital soon after the conquest of the Aztec Empire. The valley has no natural drainage and flooding was a serious problem, even back then. To handle it, the Spanish built a series of large drainage canals. They worked for a time but soil has since subsided, and the canals now run uphill. And moving soil also means broken pipes. The city loses an estimated 35 percent of its water to leaks, a nightmare for residents like Francisco Gasca.


VOICEOVER: There never used to be a lack of water. I put it down to leaks in the streets. You can often see water bubbling up over the sidewalk. You spend 8 or 10 hours without water in the bathroom, it’s horrible.

FOX: But a group of Mexican entrepreneurs believes they have discovered a solution to the problem. And it happened by accident. One day, in 1996, architect Nestor de Buen and a friend, dropped by the lab of chemist Jaime Grau to examine new materials that Grau was developing--mostly paints and paving tiles. They noticed a small paving stone in the corner.

NESTOR: When German asked him why he didn't want to show that special piece, he said, "it doesn't work because water goes through it." So I told him "Jaime, you’re kidding, that's impossible." So he opened the sink, put the piece under the water and I felt like, you know, like my soul was going everywhere around the world. I told him, "Jaime you just discovered something that everyone around the world is looking for."

FOX: Grau had hit upon a pervious, water-permeable concrete. It's similar to normal concrete, but has no sand. Instead, a special additive holds the gravel together in a strong but porous block, which some have likened to a big rice crispy square. De Buen convinced Grau to patent the product, and together they began selling it to the Mexican and U.S. construction industry under the name Ecocreto. Ten years on, the name is hardly a household word, but its makers are convinced it could be the savior of places like Mexico City.


FOX: Ecocreto can be used for roads, parking lots and other surface coverings, just like concrete or asphalt. But unlike traditional paving methods, water runs straight through Ecocreto and back into the ground.


NESTOR: If, if this was rain, it would be more than a year's worth of rain, in this small area.

FOX: Nestor de Buen pours a bucket of water on a parking lot made of Ecocreto. The water disappears instantly, leaving behind just a small wet stain.

NESTOR: In most cities around the world, we take the water from the aquifers but we don’t get it back. And in most places, when cities are built, what we are doing is putting impervious surfaces above the ground so that water is not going to get back when it drains. One of the authorities, when we started this project, told us that if we could give the aquifers one third of their rain water back we would solve the problem pretty fast.

FOX: Others have already recognized Ecocreto's potential for alleviating the water crisis in Mexico City. The product has won several environmental prizes, including one from the World Resources Institute. Some Mexico City officials have promoted its environmental benefits but although it has been used for some public roads and private constructions, its use hasn't been widespread. In most cases, the city has preferred the cheaper alternative - - at least in the short run -- of laying traditional concrete or asphalt for new roads. And it's far from ripping up old ones to lay down Ecocreto. Juan Carlos Guasch says fixing the leaky water supply system already sets the city back 20 million U.S. dollars a year, but it’s not only the cost that concerns him.


VOICEOVER: We think it’s a good product and we’ve recommended local authorities use it. But it’s mostly useful in the south, where the city is growing. Here in the center it doesn’t make any sense because the soil is impermeable.

FOX: According to Ecocreto developers, that problem can be overcome by drilling holes beneath the pavement to allow water to permeate to the aquifer, but that substantially raises the product's cost. Nestor de Buen believes that any solution to Mexico City’s water problems is going to be costly, and he’s disappointed that the city isn’t using the product on a larger scale.

Meanwhile, his company is finding new uses for the product. Currently, they're installing it in golf courses under sand traps. And they've partnered with MBA students from Georgetown University to seek new markets in the U.S. But for de Buen, the inspiration remains his thirsty city.

NESTOR: In Mexico, the worst problems are not politicians, which are rather bad most of them. Not the thieves and the kidnappers. The worst problem this country has is the lack of water.

FOX: De Buen knows Ecocreto won’t solve Mexico City’s water problems single-handedly, but he believes it’s at least a partial solution for the water-strapped city. For Living on Earth, I'm Conrad Fox in Mexico City.

[MUSIC: Gorillaz "El Manana" from ‘Demon Days’ (Virgin Records – 2005)]

Related links:
- Ecocreto
- Advances in Porous Pavement

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Re-designing Cities

CURWOOD: In New York City a team of architects and urban planners has figured out how some taken-for-granted real estate could make for a healthier environment. They did it by taking to the streets: rethinking how to use pavement, drainage, utilities and landscape; and looking at what other cities are doing. They came up with what they say is the right way to use all those public rights-of-way in an attempt, says team leader Hillary Brown, to put the principles of sustainability to work where the rubber literally meets the road.

BROWN: First off, we noticed that cars, surface transit, pedestrians, and bike riders all compete for the right-of-way. But too often, autos win out. So, we proposed carving out more space for bikers, and separating them from cars and walkers with islands and corridors of trees and vegetation.

We also found that in many places, wider sidewalks and green outdoor alcoves can entice us out of our cars to stroll, walk to work, and enjoy exercise in comfort and safety.

We all appreciate the seasonal colors of trees and other street plantings, but these pockets of nature offer other tangible benefits by removing air-borne dirt, producing oxygen, dampening street noise and keeping the city cool in summer. Some studies even show that the more trees you have on a street, the less crime you have.

Creating continuous trenches for these trees can prevent both damage to their roots and cracks in the pavement. Selecting mixed species that are water-efficient and pest-resistant produces healthier plants that need less tending to.

And instead of letting polluted rainwater flow into storm sewers, let’s direct it onto porous surfaces such as gravel or open-spaced pavers, or into planted trenches where it can be filtered by roots while refreshing underground aquifers.

We also learned that something as simple as the color of concrete or asphalt makes a big difference. Lighter shades of concrete improve visibility at night. By day, it reflects the heat of the sun, reducing summertime temperatures - - and a cooler street means less energy is needed for air-conditioning.

This pavement lasts longer too, and may be an excellent medium for recycling a variety of wastes such as old concrete, glass, or rubber.

Open up the street and you’ll find a deep tangle of conduits and pipes. We recommend organizing this messy infrastructure into trenches with removable lids for repairs. Radar can test pipes, and you can drill them with lasers, a practice called micro-tunneling that allows workmen to make repairs without digging, keeping neighbors happier.

Now, these may not sound like grand solutions, but small improvements, taken together, can make a big difference, simply because so much of our urban environment is paved. The 20,000 lane miles of right-of-way in all of New York City comprise an area as big as Manhattan.

All in all, we learned that greening our streets does far more than create a lovely, living mosaic of the city’s diverse neighborhoods. With better air and water, healthier natural systems, and a more active population, it’s a long-term investment in our city’s quality of life.

[MUSIC: Wendy Mae Chambers "New York, New York" from ‘Gravikords, Whirlies & Pyrophones’ (ellipsis arts – 1998)]

CURWOOD: Hillary Brown is an architect and principal of the firm "New Civic Works" based in Manhattan.

For more information on how to green your city, go to our website – Living on Earth dot org. That’s Living on Earth dot O-R-G.

[MUSIC: "Grandfather, Look at Me!" Tokeya Inajin: Keepers of the Dream (EarthBeat) 1995]

Related link:
Design Trust for Public Space

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CURWOOD: Coming up: Bill McKibben takes the long way home. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Roots Tonic "Clean Escape (The Crew Is Here)" from ‘Meets Bill Laswell’ (ROIR – 2006)]

The Long Walk

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Author Bill McKibben spent three weeks in the summer of 2003 backpacking from the hillsides of Vermont's Champlain Valley through the heights of New York's Adirondack Mountains.
And along the way, he met up with locals who helped him scrabble up hillsides and raft down rivers. They also taught him the meaning of living locally, and how they've come to inhabit the wilderness, without taming it. Their words of wisdom are chronicled in Bill McKibben's book, "Wandering Home: A Long Walk Across America's Most Hopeful Landscape." Bill McKibben, thanks for joining us.

MCKIBBEN: Hello, Steve.

CURWOOD: Now, Bill, you love the wild, but you grew up in the suburbs, I think, around Boston. So what drew you into the wild? In fact, I’m thinking, that as a writer you’re kind of like Alistair Cooke. You come from one place and you go to another and you tell the story.

MCKIBBEN: Well, in a sense that’s true, you know. My roots, as a writer, are quite urban. When I left college, I went off to Manhattan and wrote the "Talk of the Town" column for the New Yorker for five years and my boast at one point was that I’d been out at every subway stop in New York City. But, for a variety of odd reasons, I ended up living in the late 1980s in the Adirondacks, in the great wilderness of the East and instantly knew that that’s the landscape of my heart in some way. And not only do I love this neck of the woods – I mean, this book really is in certain ways a love letter for me, and a break from my usual grim dispatches from the world of large-scale environmental problems – I also think that it’s, you know, there’s all kinds of beautiful and lovely places, but what makes this one so interesting to me is this cheek-by-jowl contrast on the Vermont side of the lake, of Lake Champlain, a kind of emphasis on husbandry, on cooperation, you know, is sort of evidenced by the town meeting tradition. And in the Adirondacks, the great recovered wilderness of the entire world--an emphasis on a kind of self-restraint on human beings knowing how to leave some land alone, which seems like a pretty grand thing to me as well.

CURWOOD: Bill, there’s a passage in your book that really sets up your journey. Could you read about your time on the peak of Mount Abe?

MCKIBBEN: Absolutely.
Tonight a scrim of rain clouds advanced toward me, a gauzy curtain of gray that only made the lake and mountains behind gleam the shinier. It was clearly about to rain, but the worst of it seemed set to pass just north and south. A slight gap in the line headed toward my perch on Mt. Abe. Hearing no thunder, I stayed put. Sure enough, the cloud washed up over me. For a few moments even as the world turned gray, I could still make out the reflecting mirror of the lake. Finally, it too vanished and all was gloom. But then, even more quickly than it had descended, the cloud swept through and behind it the world was created fresh. No scrim, now, just the fields, the lake, the peaks. When a double rainbow suddenly appeared, it was almost too much, a Disney overdose of glory. But then a rainbow pillar rose straight into the southern sky, and east of that a vaporous twin appeared, and then a kind of rainbow cloud to the north--soon, seven rainbows at once. Then the sun reached just the right angle so that the mist, whipping up the face of the peak flashed into clouds of color as it washed over me. A rose-cloud. A cloud of green. And always behind it, the same line of lake, the same jag of mountain. All at once it struck me, struck me hard, that this was one of those few scenes I would replay in my mind when I someday lay dying.

CURWOOD: Up on Mt. Abe here, this vision of seven rainbows, seems like a hard act to follow. How do you top that?

MCKIBBEN: Well, of course, one doesn’t, I mean there will never be a moment in my life again when I see seven rainbows at once I don’t think so that was the aesthetic highpoint perhaps.

CURWOOD: Bill, so much of your book compares the two different kinds of people on the different sides of Lake Champlain. You have different folks, one lake. What are the differences you observed?

MCKIBBEN: Well, I mean, the Adirondacks has been defined by its climate and its harshness. It’s higher up and colder and tougher to farm than Vermont and so it never successfully was. You can find plenty of stone walls deep back in the woods that show where people tried for one generation to farm that land but it didn’t work. And so, though they’re roughly the same size, Vermont and the Adirondacks, the population of Vermont is 600 and some thousand and the population of the Adirondacks is barely 150,000. And in many ways, you know, once you cross the lake, once you leave New England, you’re headed west, you’re in the sort of unrulier rest of America where – no more, you know, beautiful town greens with white churches, no more town meeting. The look and the feel is more Appalachian. That has a whole other take on how the world might be.

CURWOOD: Well, let’s talk about some of the characters you met along the way in your trek here. So let’s start with Chris Grandston. He’s the Vermonter who owns this winery near Middlebury College and he has a pretty practical outlook on farming, I guess. Tell me a bit about your time with him.

MCKIBBEN: Well, he’s a classic example of people who are trying to figure out how to make it farming. It’s almost impossible to make it farming growing commodity food. You’ve got to look for other things. What’s he’s hit on in recent times is wine grapes, hard to grow in Vermont, but he went on a web site called LittleFatWino.com….

CURWOOD: (laughter) Okay.

MCKIBBEN: …and found somebody who had these sort of northern varietals and he’s making a go of it and he’s not a romantic about it. You know, I remember talking with him one day and he was saying ‘look, you know, how am I going to control the weeds under these vines?’ Well, I just talked with one guy who’s trying to do it organically, the weeds got a little out of control and now he’s taking out pigweed with a chainsaw.

CURWOOD: Oh, my.

MCKIBBEN: So what I do is once a year with a backpack sprayer, I put a little bit of Roundup up and down the rows.

CURWOOD: Monsanto’s?

MCKIBBEN: Monsanto’s a big evil nasty company as he put it, but one of the things that’s emerging here is a whole cadre of growers who call themselves ecological or sustainable farmers who don’t promise never ever to use pesticides, but say that ‘we’re your neighbors. We will use these things incredibly sparingly if we have to.’ And that allows them to grow food on a scale and for a price that can begin to offer them some hope of survival.

CURWOOD: Now, toward the end of your journey you meet with Don Armstrong who’s lived in the Adirondacks all of his life. How different was his lifestyle compared with those on the Vermont side of the trail?

MCKIBBEN: Well, Don is an old friend of mine in the town where I’ve lived most of my adult life in the Adirondacks. And he’d grown up working in the woods in some of the old lumber camps and then working in the mines, which were the two great economic engines of the Adirondacks before tourism. And so his life was very different from the pastoral life of Vermont, so his set of skills and things was more western, but his sense of community was very, very strong in a New England way.

I remember once we were changing the storm windows on the church in town and he – though he was advanced in years – took me up through this sort of set of jerry-rigged ladders and things to see the steeple of the church. And he showed me the place where he had carved his name 60 years before, along with the initials of his then-girlfriend, now-wife Velda, and it really gave me the powerful sense of what it meant to be rooted in a particular place. I read a poll the other day that showed that three-quarters of Americans didn’t know their next-door neighbor. Well, there’s not anyone who lives in Indian Lake or Chomsburg or Tupper Lake or those places who don’t know their next-door neighbors because you wouldn’t get through the winter if you didn’t. There’s still some real dependency on each other and that’s an awfully good thing I think.

CURWOOD: Bill McKibben is author of "Wandering Home–A Long Walk Across America’s Most Hopeful Landscape." Bill, thanks.

MCKIBBEN: Thank you Steve.

[MUSIC: Peter Lang "Emily’s Waltz" from ‘Guitar’ (Horus - 2004)]

Related link:
Bill McKibben’s homepage

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Coral Talk

CURWOOD: We’ve all seen pictures of an underwater coral reef, but do we know what it sounds like? Fish do and as producer Allan Coukell discovered, some baby fish use the sound to find their way home.

COUKELL: Nick Tolimieri is a biologist at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. Standing by the bay where he did his post-doc research, he explains how he recorded and played back the sounds of an underwater reef.

TOLIMIERI: So, what we did was to go out at night and put a hydrophone in the water by a reef and record the noise that comes off a reef. And a reef can be incredibly noisy.


TOLIMIERI: This is just sound recorded off of a reef, about an hour or two after sunset, and the noise is mostly sea urchins and snapping shrimp–a lot of the pops are probably the snapping shrimp. And both of these things tend to come out at night and it’s actually been called the evening chorus.

COUKELL: A lot of marine organisms, especially fish, spend their adult lives on a reef, but disperse to the open ocean as babies. Later these larval fish somehow find their way back to the reef.

TOLIMIERI: These little fish larvae that are only a centimeter or two centimeters long – they can actually locate a reef from as far away as a kilometer or two. They seem to know where they are and they’ll avoid reefs during the day, probably because they don’t want to be eaten by the bigger fish.

COUKELL: To find out how the fish find their way back, Tolimieri went fishing at night, playing tapes of underwater reef sound and catching the fish larvae in an illuminated underwater net, called a light trap.

TOLIMIERI: We put some light traps out with sound equipment and some light traps out without sound equipment, and see how many are coming to the ones with sound and the ones without sound. And for the species we’ve done so far, we’ve gotten about five times as many reef fish in the ones with sound as we have in the ones without sound.


COUKELL: Not only can fish larvae hear extremely well, but they are also good swimmers. Scientists have found that some species, following the siren call of the reef, can swim up 300 miles without eating or stopping. For Living on Earth, I’m Allan Coukell.


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Lightning Strikes

CURWOOD: 'Tis the season of summer storms, and while some folks relish all that excitement of crashing thunder and pouring rain, others say their blood runs cold at the first flash of light, especially those who've been hit by lightning. Between 200 and 1,000 people in the U.S. are struck by lightning each year. About 70 of them are killed.

Now, one person who lived to tell his tale is Russ Francis, a communications worker in Lyndon, Illinois. We caught him on his cell phone as he was driving home from work. Russ, I hear it's optimal conditions for a conversation like this!

FRANCIS: Yeah, at the present time, I’m just ahead of a huge thunderstorm. I get kind of antsy I guess when it’s storming like this.

CURWOOD: I hope this won’t spook you too much, but could you tell me the story of when you did get struck by lightning?

FRANCIS: Yes, at the time I worked for a communication company and I was repairing a line and it was raining out that day and it had not been storming at all. And I just had finished up the case of trouble that I was working on and shut the closure up and I was on the ground and just had stood up and I remember seeing the flash. It came out my right hand and the noise was something, I can’t even explain how loud the noise was. It’s the loudest thing I’ve ever experienced or heard or whatever. And I remember getting half thrown back and the next thing I remember was trying to get back into my truck and, at the time, it blew out the two-way radios that I had in our truck. I had no feeling at all on my right side. It just felt like I’d had a stroke.

CURWOOD: Wow. So, this thing hits you, you see this flash come out of your hand and then, did it knock you out? Did you have to wake up?

FRANCIS: I don’t think I was ever completely knocked out. I know I was stupor- stunned and sat there, and then got in my van and I had a headset there where I could have went back and connected on and tried to call for help. (Laughs) I’m not getting back out in this. So I ended up driving myself back into the office which was about two and a half miles away. I remember my boss took me into the emergency room then.

CURWOOD: Now, you had some symptoms, like your whole right side was weak and you lost your hearing. How long do those symptoms last?

FRANCIS: Well, I was off work for about three and a half years. Probably the first two years I slept between 20 and 22 hours a day. It just zapped every bit of energy there was out of me. I still have terrible headaches. I had a lot of trouble with dizziness and at the University of Illinois Chicago Hospital they did a functional MRI and they found out that one side of my brain pretty had much got sizzled by it.

CURWOOD: So, literally fried the brain, huh?


CURWOOD: But you’re doing okay, you sound okay.

FRANCIS: I’m back to work. They told me I’d never be go to work. I’m back to work. And the other side, I guess, is taking care of the side that’s been damaged so we’re living life as well as we can.

CURWOOD: Now, what kind of reaction did you get from family and friends? I understand that a lot of times people have a hard time believing people who say they’ve been hit by lightning.

FRANCIS: Well, the biggest things is, that 95 percent of the people have no burns or no marks on them and I was one of those. You have no physical things and they look at you and say, "you look okay, you look healthy." And, at the time, I couldn’t walk across the room without being exhausted. It would get kind of aggravating that way when people look at you in that regard. I mean, you don’t have an arm blown off, you’re not sizzled like an overdone hotdog so they think you should be okay. Well, you’re not.

CURWOOD: Now, do you have any advice for me? It’s the summer season, and it seems to me that the thunder and lightning storms come this time of year. The hazy, hot and humid weather. What would you advise me to do?

FRANCIS: I guess one of the things that bothers me is if I see a coach trying to get that one more inning in or one more batter up, or something like that, or one more play-off or get one more hole in. It can change your life and it’s not worth it.

CURWOOD: And so, what if I’m all of the sudden caught out in the middle of it and it seems like, oh wow, this is definitely lightning time. Anything I can do?

FRANCIS: Get yourself in an enclosed structure like a building with sides on it and preferably something that’s got wiring in it or whatever, like a park shelter or a tent is not a good place to be. Under a tree is one of the terrible places to be. A car is okay. It’s not the best place to be, but it’s better than being out in the open.

CURWOOD: So, right now are you still outrunning the storm?

FRANCIS: No I pulled over right now so we could have a decent cell phone conversation, but it the storm is catching up to me.

CURWOOD: Well, I guess you better get a move on then.

FRANCIS: Tell your people though, if you hear it, fear it. If you see it, flee it.

CURWOOD: Good advice. Russell Francis works in the communications business in Lyndon, Illinois.

[MUSIC: Iceland Symphony Orchestra (Sibelius) "The Storm" from ‘Sibelius: Symphony No.2/The Tempest’ (AC Classics – 2000)]

Related links:
- National Weather Service Lightning Safety Page
- Lightning Strike & Electric Shock Survivors International, Inc.

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Emerging Science Note/Parroting Elephants

CURWOOD: Coming up: If they ever held a popularity contest for birds, there's one that would probably lose. The story of the much-maligned magpie is just ahead. First this note on emerging science from Jennifer Chu.

CHU: Humans and songbirds can do it. Dolphins and bats can, too. Now, researchers have found imitation is also a form of communication for elephants.

Collaborating scientists in Kenya and Massachusetts recorded the vocalizations of two African elephants from two very different backgrounds. What they heard was nothing like that of the trumpeting call of the average African elephant.

Calimero, a 23-year-old male, was raised in a zoo with two Asian elephants for 18 years. Scientists found most of his vocalizations resembled the chirping noises typical of his Asian zoo-mates, rather than the deeper calls of his African ancestors. They say this mimicking might be his way of fitting in with a social group.

Also, a ten-year-old female Mlaika lived on the Savannah plains of Kenya with orphaned elephants, two miles from a busy highway. The majority of Mlaika's calls sounded less like an elephant and more like the revving of a truck engine. Researchers believe Mlaika learned to imitate her "highway friends" at night, when the sounds of passing trucks dominated the landscape.

It's the first time this mimicking trait has been found among these huge mammals, suggesting upbringing could shape their vocal repertoire. These skills may also help elephants recognize each other and bond as part of a group. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science. I’m Jennifer Chu.

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

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[MUSIC: Roots Tonic "Healing Of The Nations" from ‘Meets Bill Laswell’ (ROIR – 2006)]

Mad about Magpies

Ornithologist Chuck Trost holds a dead magpie he uses to perform a "magpie funeral." (Photo: © Guy Hand Productions)

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Many of us look to the natural world for clues to living a more harmonious, sustainable life. For instance, we aspire to those traits in animals we value: the wisdom of the owl, the noble bearing of the eagle, the grace of the swan. But producer Guy Hand wonders what Nature is trying to teach us when it starts acting like some pushy, poorly socialized uncle? You know, the one with the loud voice who moves in uninvited and threatens to eat everything in sight.


HAND: Ah, it's springtime in the Rockies, when a black-billed magpie's thoughts turn to love. And, as you can hear, that's a noisy time of year. There's the courting, nest building, egg laying, followed by the defending of the new family against every dog, cat, raccoon, garden tool, lawn chair, and child in its territory. All of it accompanied by the magpie's call, which is not exactly the bird world's sweetest. Add to that a few other disconcerting traits and magpies plunge pretty much to the bottom of the list of birds we Westerners love.

J.D.: I don't know anybody that likes magpies . . .

TAYLOR: To wake up every morning to screeching magpies . . .

WAJ: I'm not sure I would hate them as much if it weren't for the fact that so many other people seem to hate them.


WOMAN: We're fighting a war, Sam.

MAN 1: A war? Against who?

MAN 2: Against birds!


HAND: OK, that last bit is from the Hitchcock movie "The Birds," but it captures the mood.

VOICEOVER: In Bodega Bay today early this morning a large flock of crows attacked a groups of children . . .

HAND: Crows, who play a starring role in "The Birds," are related to magpies, and both belong to a whole family of unpopular birds. Kevin McGowan of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

MCGOWAN: Well the family Corvidae encompasses about a hundred species, more or less, about half of them are crows and ravens, the big black guys. And then the other half are things like the jays and the magpies . . .

HAND: McGowan believes that our dislike of the corvid family is rooted in European history.

MCGOWAN: A lot of cultures around the world actually like crows and ravens, and revere them as, you know, part of their creator myth and things like that. But in Europe and in western European society that’s influenced North America a lot, they tend to have a bad reputation. They're birds of ill omen, um. they're birds of bad luck and disease, and things like that. And basically that comes from the fact, I think, that there were no vultures in Europe and that it was the crows and ravens and magpies that were the scavengers.

A Magpie Takes Wing (Photo Courtesy Of: © Guy Hand Productions)

HAND: After a big battle or a nasty plague, the corvids had the unsavory habit of swooping down on the fallen victims and pecking their eyes out.

MCGOWAN: Then add to that that the crows and ravens at least are black. And that again was a negative association for western European thought, as black is the color of evil, and all that sort of thing.

HAND: Think Edgar Allen Poe:

VOICEOVER: Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!' Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

HAND: A century ago, magpies had a bounty on their heads. A hundred and fifty thousand were killed for cash in Idaho alone. Today, our cultural distaste for corvids is still codified in American law. the Migratory Bird Treaty Act only protects magpies, crows, and a few other unloved birds if they reform their evil ways. According to Rex Sallabanks of Idaho Fish and Game, it’s legal to control them if they peck at your screen door, eat Fifi’s dog food, go for the cherry tree.

SALLABANKS: Or, and this is the interesting part, when concentrated in such numbers and manner as to constitute a health hazard, or other nuisance. And the main way that you can control them, obviously, is to shoot them.

HAND: You’re not supposed to blast magpies within city limits, but other than that, the law is loose.

SALLABANKS: So it’s kind of like, well, does it have that look in its eye, you know? Like it’s up to no good and about to do something?

HAND: Some people would say it always has that look in its eye.


J.D.: Hear that? That was a rooster, a pheasant rooster, he was right over there.


HAND: JD and his black lab are walking through his hunting preserve in Southern Idaho.

JD: Did you hear that rooster?

HAND: Yeah.

JD: There was one in right over here, one over there. There’s just a tremendous amount of pheasants here and we have a lot of quail. We have lots of ducks here. We have geese that nest here. There’s lots of wild birds, though here too. There’s killdeer, red winged black bird, herons...

HAND: JD loves birds, just not magpies, although various magpie species can be found in numerous parts of the world, the American magpie lives exclusively in the Western US and this expanse of high desert has the densest concentration of magpies on earth. JD thinks that density threatens his other birds.

JD: Look at the baby ducks. See them in the water there?

HAND: Yeah.

JD: There’s three baby ducks there. Now, magpies will go after them if they’re on land. They’ll just wait until those eggs or babies get just right and swoop down on them and eat them up. That’s all they do.

HAND: That’s why he’s carrying a twelve-gauge shotgun, just in case he catches a magpie in the act of raiding a game bird’s nest. And it’s not just the act of depredation that bothers JD and plenty of other people. It’s the seemingly devious way magpies kill other birds.

JD: Yeah, they’ll usually travel in groups and I’ve seen them where, like if you have a bunch of quail and they’ve got their little babies, one or two of the birds will distract the quail, the adults, and then another two magpies will come in behind and swoop down and pick up the baby quail. They’ll team hunt, sort of like a pack of coyotes or wolves.

HAND: A few minutes later JD spots a magpie in the act.


JD: Got ‘im! Woo! First magpie!

HAND: He picks up the limp bird and holds it hanging by that tail.

JD: They’re a pretty bird. I mean, they’re handsome, they’re always dressed in a tuxedo and ready to party.


HAND: Magpies are iridescent black and blue and creamy white with a long showy tail. By corvids standards they are beautiful birds. But still, people think they look flat out evil. And magpies don’t mind taking that dark side into town.

PETERSON: Look, there’s one right there. Right there, there’s a magpie nest, do you see it? Right by our porch.

HAND: My neighbors, Dave Peterson, and Mary Lou Taylor, live in Idaho’s biggest city, Boise, where they’re worried the magpies are taking over. Dave and Mary Lou count six magpie nests from where they stand in their backyard.

PETERSON: So maybe Mary Lou’s theory that there are…

TAYLOR: … a few jillion more magpies than last year.

PETERSON: Well, but how many? I dunno if there are a few jillion more, but how many robin nests are in the same vicinity.

TAYLOR: Well, see that’s the thing that I think, that the magpies are driving out the other birds.

HAND: Dave and Mary Lou are generally pretty sane, law abiding citizens, but magpies have got them fanaticizing revenge.

PETERSON: So Mary Lou wants to start a magpie eradication program and she has some real clever ideas for getting rid of these magpie nests I might add.

HAND: What are they?

PETERSON: Well her best idea is to have me hone up on my archery skills and then get a flaming arrow and shoot it into the magpie nests. We checked with the, uh, fire department, and they frown upon this.

HAND: Neither Dave or Mary Lou are serious about their eradication program, but plenty of others are. People routinely shotgun magpie nests, pull them out of trees, light them on fire, or grab the eggs and crush them.


MAN: Get yourself guns and wipe them off the face of the Earth.

WOMAN: That would hardly be possible

MAN: Why not Miss Bundy?

WOMAN: Because there are 8,650 species of birds in the world today, Mr. Carter. The five continents of the world…

MAN: Come on, get rid of the messy birds.

WOMAN: Probably contain more that a hundred billion birds.

HAND: Yeah, that’s from The Birds too, my point being that it’s really hard to untangle fable, in this case film, from scientific fact when it comes to magpies, corvids, and well, nature in general. Kevin McGowan of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology says all this magpie directed malevolence is misplaced.

MCGOWAN: Partly it’s because some of the things we see them do we don’t like. And, we don’t have a sense of how important that is to the whole grand scheme of things. So we see them come in and take a robin’s nest and eat the babies and we’re all upset by that and we think of them as these nasty thieves kind of thing. Well in fact they’re not thieves, they’re just trying to raise their own young.

A Fledging Magpie (Photo Courtesty Of: © Guy Hand Productions)

HAND: In fact, one study found that songbird populations actually increased as the number of magpies grew in the area. McGowan believes we label magpies and other corvids as wanton killers simply because they are big, obvious birds and when they do something we find distasteful, we notice it. Whereas lots of unexpected predators in nature sneak by unnoticed.

MCGOWAN: As studies recently have been putting cameras on bird nests and seeing who it is that’s actually coming in and eating those eggs and babies. What we’re finding is that it’s predominantly squirrels.

HAND: Squirrels?


HAND: And McGowan says nest cams have caught another unlikely suspect.

MCGOWAN: Deer eat a lot of eggs and nestlings of ground nesting birds. I tell you, I didn’t expect that. But it’s not just a question of them accidentally breaking eggs as they’re cropping grass either. There’s video of them actually chasing down little fledglings that are trying to run away from the nest and grabbing them and gulping them down.


BOY: Hiya Bambi!

HAND: Bambi 2?

BOY: Watch what I can do!

HAND: Scientists say magpies are way down the list of animals that eat baby birds. But like it or not, our view of nature is informed not only by biology but by everything from Beowulf and the Bible to the birds in Bambi, We try to understand nature, like everything else, through stories. We cast animals in the roles of hero and villain, often unconsciously, then push them off on a narrative adventure we hope will end in just, morally satisfying ways. When nature doesn’t follow the script, we often react with anger or fear.


BOY: Are the birds gonna eat us Mommy?

MAN: Now, maybe we’re all getting a little carried away by this.

HAND: Watching a magpie pull a baby bird out of its’ nest, even when we tell ourselves it’s part of nature, is nevertheless unsettling.

WOMAN: Why are they doing this?

HAND: It whispers the possibility of a cold, uncaring universe. A natural world less teacher than tormentor. So we often try to rewrite the script to save the baby bird and sentence the murderous magpie to death.

TROST: They’ll be all around here, yeah, they’ll be down…some of them will be on the gravestones, some of them will be right here pecking at the magpies.

HAND: Chuck Trost has spent twenty years trying to read nature’s story from a magpie’s perspective. A retired professor of ornithology at Idaho State University, he’s the nation’s leading expert on magpies. And when he asks me to meet him in a cemetery so he can perform a magpie funeral, I’m glad to hear I’m not to play the role of the dearly departed.

TROST: Alright, well I’ve got a dead magpie here, and, uh, I’ve just put it on the ground in the cemetery and, uh, we’re going to go back and sit in the car and see what happens. What I predict will happen is that a magpie will notice it and start calling. And the effect of that is it draws other magpies in. Magpies will come in from across the river and all around here. And, uh, they’ll be in the trees and they’ll be down looking at this dead magpie. So its kind of an intense thing that goes on for ten minutes, fifteen minutes, and then they leave.

HAND: Trost hopes his so-called magpie funeral will give me a taste of what he’s discovered in his two decades of study, that magpies are surprisingly intelligent complex creatures. He says they have a well-defined social hierarchy. They’re monogamous but they also allow for divorce. They’ll defend their chicks against animals many times their own size, and they might even have a sense of humor.

TROST: I’ve seen a merlin actually attacking magpies, a flock of magpies. And you just have to laugh to watch it, because the magpies would dive into a bush and the merlin would take off and start to leave and one of them would chase it and they turn around and drive that magpie right into the bush again. And this would happen like ten times, over and over again. And I think they were just using this merlin just to show off. So there’s fascinating things you can see if you just have enough patience to watch.

HAND: Trost thinks we’d all learn to love magpies if we were patient enough to watch them for awhile.


HAND: As we talk, magpies gather in the trees above the dead bird, calling, then begin gliding down and gathering around the corpse itself. One tentatively pulls at the tail, and when there’s no response, backs off and simply stands there. Trost has an explanation for all this.

TROST: It’s probably trying to see what killed it and mostly I think what it is is they’re trying to see who it is. Because they know each other, magpies know each other, and whenever there’s a dead magpie, that means there’s an opening in the social system. And if you’re a submissive magpie you can move up one notch.

HAND: As a scientist, Trost can’t speculate on the magpie’s capacity to mourn, but watching these birds standing there among the gravestones, dressed in funereal black and white plumage, I can’t help but wonder it there’s some kind of spiritual spark glowing in these complicated little corvid skulls. If we’re so quick to assign the worst human traits to magpies, can’t we just allow them just a little room for reverential reflection? It seems only fair. Who's to say magpies aren’t contemplating the nature of life and death, like us? Maybe they’re just a little noisier about it.


HAND: For Living on Earth, I’m Guy Hand.



WOMAN: Ornithology happens to be my evocation. Birds are not aggressive creatures, miss. They bring beauty into this world. It is mankind, rather, who insists upon making it difficult for life to exist upon this planet. Now if it were not for birds…

MAN: … you don’t seem to understand, this young lady said there was an attack on the school.

WOMAN: Impossible.

[MUSIC: Leo Eide (whistling) & Hakan Sund (piano) "In A Monastery Garden" from ‘Whistling Virtuoso’ (BIS/IODA – 2002)]

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CURWOOD: Next week on Living on Earth, In the semi-arid region of South Africa known as the Succulent Karoo, seasons of drought have led to failed crops. Scientists predict there could be more dry spells on the way, and also extreme rains. In one area, they’re working with a group of rooibos tea farmers to help them adapt their growing practices to these changes in climate.

RHODA: We’re trying to marry the scientific knowledge with the indigenous knowledge, which there is a great body of, and to try to integrate that.

CURWOOD: Farming adaptations to climate change.- on the next Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Ashley Ahearn, Chris Ballman, Eileen Bolinsky, Jennifer Chu, Bruce Gellerman, Ingrid Lobet and Jeff Young - with help from Bobby Bascomb, Kelley Cronin, and James Curwood. Our interns are Tobin Hack and Allison Smith. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us at loe dot org. I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

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