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

August 31, 2007

Air Date: August 31, 2007



Biomimicry / Andrea Kissack

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A growing number of scientists, engineers, and architects work on the assumption that most design problems have their solutions somewhere in nature - if we can only find the right microbe, beetle or flower. KQED’s Andrea Kissack reports on the concept, and limitations, of biomimicry. (06:00)

Can Termites Save the World? / Bruce Gellerman

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Living on Earth’s Bruce Gellerman reports on a new frontier in the search for clean biofuels. Scientists are investigating the guts of termites and other animals for microbes and enzymes that can help break down wood and other plant material. (05:05)

The Master Tree-Planter Speaks

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Some of the most creative ideas about how to reforest developing countries come from a Kenyan woman. Wangari Maathai is the leader of the Green Belt tree-planting movement and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. In the first part of a two-part interview, host Steve Curwood talks with Wangari Maathai about her most recent work and about some of the events that helped shape her vision. (13:30)

Farm Life / Jennifer Obakhume

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Youth Radio’s Jennifer Obakhume hails from Los Angeles and comments on the culture shock of her first visit to a farm. (03:45)

Emerging Science Note/Getting to the Root of the Problem / Tobin Hack

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Scientists have isolated adult stem cells in human hair follicles. Tobin Hack reports that these cells are surprisingly similar, but far less controversial, than their embryonic stem cell brothers. (01:30)

Pleasurable Kingdom

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Most pet owners would tell you it’s quite obvious that their pets feel pleasure. But scientific proof of pleasure sensation in animals has been lacking. Host Steve Curwood talks with animal behavioral scientist Jonathan Balcombe. He’s the author of “Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good.” (08:45)

A Whale of a Tale

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Lynne Cox has made a name for herself as a long distance swimmer. She’s swam the English Channel, the waters of the Bering Strait, and bared frigid temperatures in the Antarctic Ocean. But it was during an early morning workout when she was a teenager that Cox had one of her most memorable experiences: an encounter with a baby gray whale. Lynne Cox shares her story Living on Earth's Ashley Ahearn. (06:00)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
GUEST: Wangari Maathai, Jonathan Balcombe
REPORTER: Bruce Gellerman, Andrea Kissick, Jennifer Obakhume


CURWOOD: From Public Radio International - this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood.

The ground-breaking campaigns of Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai on behalf of women and the environment have won her the Nobel Peace Prize, but not universal acclaim.

MAATHAI: Sometimes, when you are breaking barriers some people will applaud you but some people want to discourage you, because they think you are breaking barriers that should not be broken. Because people want to fix you in a box.

CURWOOD: Also, forget about putting a tiger in your gas tank. How about filling up with weeds and other plants refined by termites?

SOMERVILLE: Organizations are now going out into nature and identifying microorganisms from all kinds of environments, such as termite guts and the ruminant of cattle and forest floors and compost heaps where microorganisms are known to exist who live on breaking down cellulose into sugars.

CURWOOD: Termites, biofuels and more this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.

[MUSIC: Boards Of Canada “Zoetrope” from “In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country” (Warp Records 2000)]

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


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Entrepreneur Jay Harman looks to nature to inspire his inventions. On a beach near the Golden Gate Bridge he studies a strand of kelp for ideas. (Photo: Andrea Kissack)

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is an encore edition of Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Spiders can spin silk stronger than steel. And plants can harness the sun’s energy better than solar cells. These are examples of evolutionary R & D. Over billions of years, nature has evolved, producing extraordinary technical accomplishments. Increasingly, biologists, engineers, even architects, are imitating Mother Nature. They call the method “biomimicry” Andrea Kissick from member station KQED has our story.


KISSICK: Growing up snorkeling off the coral reefs of Australia, Jay Harman has never strayed far from his childhood. As a boy, he paid close attention to how the waves curled and crashed and the sinewy way the fish swam. It all seemed effortless to Harman, who now runs an appliance design company in Marin County, California. As he strolls along a beach just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, Harman is reminded of his earliest inspiration -- seaweed, and the way it moves with the force of water.


HARMAN: You know you get waves out here that are 40-feet high, massive waves, massive amounts of energy. And this kelp doesn't break off. What they are doing in order to survive against this onslaught of this massive mountain of water is they change their shape and they start to spiral into the same spirals that the waves do.

Entrepreneur Jay Harman looks to nature to inspire his inventions. On a beach near the Golden Gate Bridge he studies a strand of kelp for ideas. (Photo: Andrea Kissack)

KISSICK: It's the path of least resistance -- and that was a huge discovery for Harman, who spent more than a dozen years with the Australian Wildlife and Fisheries Department and has studied mechanical engineering. In fact, Harman’s insight led him to the spiral. He’s obsessed with the shape. Back in his San Rafael lab, he sees spirals in everything.

HARMAN: Nature always follows a particular pathway when it moves. I am talking about how liquids flow, and air flows and how the fog moves and how blood flows in our veins how a seashell grows or the cochlear of the ear grows. All of these things, without exception, have one path of movement, one geometric path of movement, and it’s a spiraling shape.

KISSICK: Think of that sucking sound when the last of the water drains out of the sink


KISSICK: Harman figured out how to copy a spiraling whirlpool to make more energy efficient, quieter fans, stints, pumps and turbines. He hopes his tiny propellers will be used to curb the spread of disease in developing countries. Harman is part of a movement of innovators inspired by nature and if they were to have a guru, it would be Janine Benyus. In 1997 she coined the term, “Biomimicry” in her seminal book about nature and design. Based in Montana, she travels the globe talking about the idea, to industry, academics, and anyone who will listen.

BENYUS: Around the world right now there are people in design, engineering, architects, chemists, all who are sort of looking over nature’s shoulder, and saying, “how has life already solved the problems that I’m trying to solve?” And they are looking at those strategies and then actually taking the next step and trying to emulate them to solve human problems.”

KISSICK: Like droughts in Africa. Engineers are looking at the Namibian beetle. It turns out its wing scales harvest water even from fog. As the fog rolls in, the beetle lifts its wings and large droplets of moisture build up and run down its shell into its mouth. A German company has developed a self-cleaning paint based on the water repellant lotus leaf. And perhaps the best-known example of biomimicry in action is Velcro, which was inspired by those little prickly things that stick to a dog's tail.

BENYUS: All of those strategies have to be conducive to life. There are not toxic ones, there are not wasteful, you know, overbuilt ones because natural selection’s a really powerful optimizing process.

FULL: The caution that we have is that if you take biomimicry too far and you consider it as blind copying, then you can actually be lead down the wrong path with respect to design.

KISSICK: UC Berkeley Integrative Biology Professor Robert Full is studying the locomotion of bugs and reptiles for ways to inspire robotics.

FULL: It turns out nature works on a satisfying principle. That is, evolution works on a just-good-enough principle, not an optimizing, perfecting principle. And in many cases it’s very hard to tell which parts of the organisms you should mimic and which parts you shouldn’t.

KISSICK: It’s trial and error and a little bit of luck. Nike, who hired a biologist for advice on design, had to pull its Goat-Tek trail shoe, modeled after a mountain goat's hoof, when people didn’t buy them. And that’s where Full, who’s talked with the company, says corporations and manufacturers need to be careful - it may be that some of nature is just not meant to be copied.

FULL: So here’s a gecko. And it’s sticking on a wall in one of their cages.

KISSICK: In his lab in the Life Sciences building on the Berkeley campus, Full points to a Crested Indonesian gecko glommed on to the side of a small aquarium.

FULL: You notice that the feet are a bit unusual in the sense that they are not just kind of flat smooth toes. If you look at them you’ll see that there are sort of ridges there. There are leaf-like structures called lemeli and on those lemeli what we discovered is the Geckos have millions of hairs. If you look at the ends of those hairs, they have the worst case of split ends possible, and that’s the secret of how they can stick on walls and go anywhere.

KISSICK: Full and his colleagues are trying to design a robot, modeled after the Gecko that can scurry up walls and look for victims in burning buildings.

And that seems to be the common thread among most scientists looking to nature for ideas: They are seeking sustainable solutions that will help people and the planet resolve some of today’s most pressing problems. Full just started a new center at UC Berkeley dedicated to teaching the next generation of scientists how to take their cues from nature.

For Living on Earth, I’m Andrea Kissick

Related links:
- Jay Harman’s company, PAX Scientific
- Janine Benyus’ organization: Biomimicry Guild
- Robert Full’s new center at U.C. Berkeley: Center for Integrative Biomechanics in Education and Research (CIBER)

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[MUSIC: Donald Fagan “The New Frontier” from Nightfly (Warner Bros. )]

Can Termites Save the World?

Formosan subterranean termites. (Courtesy of USDA)

CURWOOD: Termites. They can be really bad news if you live in a wooden home, but as scientists search for solutions to the challenge of climate change, termites might emerge as the good guys, along with an unusual plant that grows like a weed. Living on Earth’s Bruce Gellerman explains.

GELLERMAN: In 1997 Steven Chu shared the Nobel Prize in physics by thinking small, using lasers to trap and cool atoms. Today, Chu is director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. He’s switched fields to molecular biology and now he’s thinking big, very big.

CHU: Oh we want to save the world, ha, ha, ha.

GELLERMAN: Chu wants to save the world from global warming and he and colleagues from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne, Stanford University, and CalTech plan to do it in part with plants.

Corn and sugar cane can already be converted into ethanol which can be used in cars. But it takes a lot of energy and land to grow, harvest, and convert these foods into fuel. Chu and company have a different idea. Instead of using expensive crops which don’t give you much bang for your buck they want to distill ethanol from agricultural wastes, things like wood chips and a fast growing, tropical grass called Miscanthus. Chu calls miscanthus a miracle weed. On one experimental field 2500 gallons of ethanol were distilled from a single acre. That’s nearly three times what you get from corn.

CHU: This is a weed to behold. Miscanthus grows to 14 feet. It’s a perennial crop. Chop it off at the bottom and next year it’s 14 feet. Pretty good stuff!

"Miscanthus growth over a single growing season in Illinois." (Courtesy of U.S. DOE)

GELLERMAN: And Miscanthus doesn’t need much water, fertilizer, or pesticides and it’s carbon neutral- it produces no extra green house gases. Chu says, it can be grown on millions of acres of fallow agricultural land. He believes making ethanol from ag. waste and plants like Miscanthus can replace two thirds of the gasoline used in the U.S. There’s just one problem.

CHU: Ah right now it’s too expensive to convert.

GELLERMAN: The materials in miscanthus that Chu wants to convert into ethanol are cellulose and lignin, the woody stuff that makes plants hard. Nature deliberately makes it difficult to break down these strong substances and turn them into starch which can then be distilled. But nature also has things that can help, things like termites. That’s right termites. The pests that can eat you out of house and home.

SIMON: The termites are fantastic. We went through Africa and saw these huge termites. These guys are working like mad.

GELLERMAN: Melvin Simon, professor emeritus at CalTech thinks termites can help save the world because they can do what we can’t. When we eat cellulose we call it dietary fiber. It passes right through us. But when termites eat cellulose they call it dinner because in the termites gut are microorganisms that produce enzymes, chemicals that can break down the cellulose, again, Mel Simon

SIMON: You know what happens when the termite is born. The little baby termite hatches? It hasn’t got these enzymes, the mother regurgitates a little bit of stuff and the babies sucks that up and gets itself inoculated with the enzymes it’s going to need to make its food. Isn’t that great? (laughs)

Formosan subterranean termites. (Courtesy of USDA)

GELLERMAN: But it takes a lot of termites a long time to chew through a two by four says Simon. As good as the enzymes in the bugs’ guts are at digesting cellulose, they’re too slow for industrial purposes.

SIMON: That’s the problem. Biology isn’t in a hurry. Biology has lots of time. So there are some problems speeding up the rate at which catalysts work. That’s not a simple process.

GELLERMAN: But scientists like Mel Simon are experimenting with modifying the bugs in termite guts to speed them up and they’ve got a new genetic tool to help them find promising microbes. Chris Somerville is a researcher from Stanford University and Carnegie Institution:

SOMERVILLE: Organizations are now going out into nature and identifying all kinds of environments, such as termite guts and the ruminant of cattle, and forest floors, and composite heaps where microorganisms are known to exist who live on breaking down cellulose into sugars. And now they’re determining the DNA sequence and analyzing the gene structure of these organisms to identify new types of enzymes that might be more efficient at this.

GELLERMAN: Professor Somerville is investigating how to make the cellulose in plants like Miscanthus easier to break down. Somerville’s work and those of his colleagues, Nobel Laureate Steven Chu and Melvin Simon, is funded by a 500 million dollar grant from BP Oil Company. President Bush has proposed 180 million dollars for biofuel research next year. But Somerville says it will be the profit motive not government that will drive new biofuel R&D:

SOMERVILLE: I actually believe it’s going to be possible to create a biofuels industry on a very large scale fundamentally without the government. I think that the participation of the world’s energy companies is the key ingredient.

GELLERMAN: Chris Somerville predicts you could be putting the stuff produced from termite guts eating exotic plants into the tank of your car within ten or 12 years.

For Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman

Related links:
- Mel Simon's company: Diversa Corporation
- Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
- Miscanthus research at the University of Illinois

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CURWOOD: Coming up: a conversation with environmental activist, and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Matthai. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Sly And The Family Stone “The Gorilla Is My Butler” from There’s A Riot Goin On (Legacy 2007)]

The Master Tree-Planter Speaks

(Photo: Mia MacDonald)

CURWOOD: This is an encore edition of Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The book “Unbowed” tells the story of a young child from a village in Kenya who became the first girl in her family to go to school, and then the first woman of color in her part of the world to earn a doctorate. The story continues with her founding a global peace and development movement based on planting trees and then waking up one morning to a phone call telling her she'd won the Nobel Peace Prize.

And no, the story isn't fiction. It's the memoir of Wangari Maathai, one of the most accomplished environmental and human rights leaders of our time. Earlier this year, Professor as she's known in Kenya, visited the United States to speak about her efforts to preserve the rainforest of Central Africa… and her other work on behalf of the environment and democracy that was recognized by the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. She spoke to us from a studio in Buffalo.

Professor, welcome to Living on Earth.

(Courtesy of Knopf Publishers). (Photo: Mia MacDonald)

MAATHAI: Thank you very much.

CURWOOD: Now for those who are unaware I want to mention that you, Wangari Maathai, are the founder of just this extraordinary effort to mobilize Kenyans and people all over the world now to plant trees in deforested land. You founded programs to teach children about river ecology. You led tree planting campaigns for soldiers. Your leadership and that of the green belt movement that you founded in Kenya has, has moved Kenyans to plant what, some thirty million trees?

MAATHAI: And counting.

CURWOOD: And counting.

MAATHAI: (laughs) We are still planting. It is very important for people to understand that we are dealing with a region and a continent that is greatly deforested. Ah, and it needs literally millions and millions of trees and mobilization of as many hands as can possibly be found.

CURWOOD: And even more so as we think that the tree you plant in Kenya helps the whole world with the global warming problem.

MAATHAI: Yes, especially now that the scientists are telling us with more certainty that the climate change is indeed happening. It’s very very important for us to plant the trees as well as protect the trees that are standing because these are our friends, they help us fix the carbon that is now in the atmosphere.

Members of Green Belt Movement plant trees on an eroding hillside. (Photo: Mia MacDonald)

CURWOOD: When you received the Nobel Peace Prize you got one of those very famous phone calls, ah, from Norway. What was just about the first thing you did after you got that phone call?

MAATHAI: I was so overwhelmed. I was literally out of myself, tears rolling down my cheeks, unbelieving. And I happened to be at this site facing Mount Kenya and for generations of past for my people this mountain was a holy mountain. And it was one of the mountains that we had been trying to save from deforestation. So I was extremely overwhelmed and I immediately dug a hole and planted a Nandi Flame.

CURWOOD: The Nandi Flame Tree, this is the bright orange flowering tree?

MAATHAI: Yeah, it’s a tree that, ah, grows quite tall. And at the top when it has flowers they are red hot. So from a distance the tree looks like it is aflame. That’s why I guess the English, when they first saw the tree they called it Nandi Flame.

CURWOOD: Now being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along the way you wound up in jail, not once not twice, but several times. All because, what, you were planting trees. Why were you jailed for planting trees?

MAATHAI: Well, the jailing was not because of planting trees per say. It was because in the course of planting trees, in the course of mobilizing, in the course of creating networks of women to plant the trees it had become necessary to also give them information on how the environment is destroyed sometimes by the state. And it became necessary for us to raise our voices and tell the government that it was not managing those resources responsibly. Ah, and it was while we were doing this that we got arrested. The actual planting of trees would have been alright. But it would have been completely nonsensical for us to be planting trees on one side and other people are cutting them on the other. So we decided to protect the standing trees and especially forests, which also serve as the water catchment areas for millions of people who live around the mountains.

CURWOOD: Now it’s not easy for women anywhere on the planet but I don’t know if people understand how difficult it is to be an outspoken woman in East Africa, or was. You, ah, were the first woman of color to have a PhD in Central and East Africa as I understand it.

MAATHAI: Yes indeed. It’s always very difficult to be a pioneer. And women, I guess, have been pioneering for a long time trying to break the barriers of discrimination and denial of capacity to exploit our potential. And going to school for me was breaking one of those barriers. Getting to high school, coming to America and attending college, going home and registering for a PhD; all these were breaking barriers. And sometimes when you are breaking barriers some people will applaud you but some people want to discourage you because they think you are breaking those barriers that should not be broken because people want to fix you in a box.

Wangari Maathai overlooking areas reforested by GBM in 2004." (Photo: Mia MacDonald)

CURWOOD: Now despite your fame and success the Green Belt movement has subsisted on, well, you don’t have a whole lot of money. There are times when, what, you don’t have enough money to buy the plastic tubes that your volunteers use for stuffing in soil and seedlings. You don’t have that basic item to accommodate everyone who wants to plant trees.

MAATHAI: Yes. That has always been our challenge, from the very beginning. And we hope that, at least now, that our work has been validated that we would receive the support we need. Right now, as I speak, our biggest challenge is office space so that we can expand, because there is so much demand for us, both locally and globally.

CURWOOD: At one point there was talk of spreading the Green Belt Movement’s tree planting mobilization to Haiti, ah, you were in touch with former Vice President Al Gore, in fact, about those efforts. Haiti, of course, is one of the most deforested and frankly God-forsaken spots on this planet. Um, what’s going on now in that regard?

MAATHAI: It has been very very, difficult, ah doing things in Haiti, because to succeed you need people on the ground who are committed to it, and that has been missing. Somebody cannot come from outside and plant trees in Haiti, rehabilitate the environment in Haiti. It must be done by the Haitians, we can share our experience with them, but it is they who must do it. The government, as you know there, has been in trouble for many years. We even brought some Haitians all the way to Kenya with the assistance of some women friends, who were helping us. But when they went back they didn’t do anything. They kind of fizzled away. It’s not easy. It’s not a matter of talking. It’s a matter of going down on your knees, digging holes, putting those seedlings, and first and foremost you have to start with the seeds. So you look for seeds, you put them in, they germinate, you nurture them. When they are about two feet high, you put them in the ground and you water them and you protect them. We are still in touch with them. And, ah we are now trying another organization, which I hope will help us to make a break through. But my appeal is that Haitians join us, so that we can share our experience. They can get down on their knees and rehabilitate their country, one tree at a time.

CURWOOD: Wangari Maathai, ah, from your own perspective what about your life is, perhaps in any woman’s life, what’s extraordinary about what’s happened to you and the changes that you’ve been able to help make possible?

MAATHAI: I think that what has happened that is extraordinary, ah was sometimes completely unexpected. Going to school, was in itself an extraordinary event because I was going to school at a time when very few girls were going to school. And then in the 1960’s I had another great opportunity when I found myself coming to America, along with over 300 students, in an event that was organized by Senator John Kennedy, who was at that time campaigning to become the next President of the United States of America and then I came to this country at a very interesting time, during the times when Martin Luther King and his colleagues were having the demonstrations and calling for changes in the law to give all Americans, and especially black Americans, all full rights and that had a great influence on me so that when I went back home, and eventually encountered human rights violations and tortures of people who were seeking greater political space, I did not hesitate to advocate for their release, and to advocate for respect for human rights and women’s rights. And in my own way, my own life was demonstrating that if you give a woman her rights, if you give her an opportunity, she can indeed make a great contribution, she can, she has great potential. But it’s not as if I chose it now. I didn’t choose these obstacles, they were just being put, ah before me, partly by culture, partly by tradition, partly by the way the society was structured.

CURWOOD: And that’s why you call the next to last chapter of your book: Rise Up and Walk.

Wangari Maathai addressing the American Association of Publishers Paper Issue Working Group at Random House, New York. (Photo: Martin Rowe)

MAATHAI: That’s right. I think one of the, the great messages that I try to share is that it is very important for all of us to know that we are human. We are not divine. So we make mistakes, we fall. And that is not a crime. What we need to do every time is gather enough courage to rise up and walk. But in the process we may need people to give us, the, a helping hand to help us become whole. Because I borrowed that from the story of Peter and John in the Bible.

I think it is in the chapter of the Acts, those of you who read the Bible, you remember the story of the man who was disabled from birth. He was sitting at the entrance to the Synagogue and people would come and give him alms. But when Peter and John came Peter said, “Silver and gold I have none. But what I have I’ll give you. In the name of Jesus of Nazareth rise up and walk.” And the book says he rose up, he felt his limbs become whole. And he rose up and he was very happy. I love that story because I think that is what we should do with people who are poor, people who are marginalized, people who are not given opportunities. We don’t need to give them alms. We don’t need to give them aid. We need to empower them. We need to help them become whole. Give them a hand and help them rise up and walk.

CURWOOD: Wangari Maathai is the winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. She's the founder of Africa's Green Belt Movement and she also serves as Kenya's Deputy Minister of the Environment. Her memoir is called “Unbowed.” We'll continue our conversation with Professor Maathai in next week's program. You can also hear an hour-long documentary about her life and work anytime at loe.org.

Related links:
- The Green Belt Movement
- Green Belt Movement blog
- Wangari Maathai's "Unbowed"
- UNEP's "Plant for the Planet: Billion Tree Campaign"

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[MUSIC: Gabriel Omolo “Magy Nyar Alego from Kenya Dance Mania (Earthworks 1991)]

Farm Life

CURWOOD: Just before she packed her bags for her freshman year in college, Youth Radio producer Jennifer Obakhume headed 220 miles north from her home in Los Angeles to an organic farm in Three Rivers California. As Jennifer learned, it was a short trip, but a world apart for a first time visitor to a farm.

OBAKHUME: I’m a city girl from L.A., but until this summer the closest I had ever been to a farm was a petting zoo called Green Meadows Farms in Los Angeles County. Most of what I knew about country living I learned from watching "Green Acres" on TV Land. That all changed when this city girl made her first trip with friends to the country, 4 hours outside of Los Angeles.

BIRCH: “Oh here’s some gala apples. Just startin to ripen. I’ve been picking them and eating them already. If I were y’all, I’d grab some with a little red on ‘em. Some of them might have worms in em”

OBAKHUME: Ah to eat fresh fruit picked right from a tree! James Birch, proprietor of Flora Bella Farm, takes me on a tour of his beautiful 26-acre farm. I learn about the irrigation water needed for crops, and how you monitor fruit and vegetable growth. I also find out that Gala apples picked fresh from a tree are an enjoyable treat.


OBAKHUME: I’ve never considered farming as a career prospect before, although I do know something about farming because I once grew fruits and vegetables in the city with my late grandmother before I was pre-school age. But now I’m 17; it’s been a long time. Everything is beautiful on the farm, except for the bugs.

I do face a major challenge if I ever want to be an organic farmer. Don’t laugh. I have a nearly manic fear of spiders that began when my 2nd grade teacher showed the movie “Arachnophobia” to our class. Of course, there are Daddy Long Legs all over the farm.

So I brew up a plan to sleep in the car for two nights, though I change my mind. Still, I can only stand to shower the first night because there are spiders on the ceiling. But as the weekend passes, the beauty of the outdoors outweighs my fear.

WIESENTHAL: So this is an Othello Rose. This is its third bloom of the summer. And if you smell it, you will be transported!

OBAKHUME: I sniff alongside Bettina Wiesenthal Birch in the Rose garden at her neighboring farm. I think about my fear of spiders and its deeper roots. The truth is, I have bigger things on my mind. I start college in North Carolina in a matter of days.

I begin to contemplate this new chapter in my life in terms of farming: I’m digging the hole for the seeds of new beginnings, and I’m growing roots to maintain stability during uncertain times. And then of course, I’m weeding out the negative, facing those spiders- my fear of the unknown.

My time on the farm tests my ability to accept situations that are out of my control, and out of my comfort zones. This is also what college will do.

In a funny way, visiting Flora Bella Farm feels like coming back to a home I never had. A home where I actually feel free to take in the air, and free to accept that I am going through changes. The Farm can keep the spiders, but I’ll keep the memories of the sweet smelling roses and the feeling of making a bright new transition into college.

For Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer Obakhume.

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[MUSIC: McCoy Tyner “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit” from McCoy Tyner Qt. (Half Note Records 2007)]

CURWOOD: Jennifer Obakhume attends Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina. Her story was produced by Youth Radio.

[MUSIC: Pat Metheny “Bright Size Life” from The Essential Jaco Pastorious (Sony Legacy 2007) originally from Pat Metheny Bright Size Life (ECM 1976)]

CURWOOD: You can hear our program any time on our website or get a download for your mp3 player. The address is LOE dot org, that’s LOE dot o-r-g. You can reach us at comments at loe.org, once again, comments at loe dot org. Our postal address is 20 Holland Street, Somerville, Massachusetts, 02144 and you can call our listener line any time at 800 218 9988. That’s 800 218 9988.

CURWOOD: Just ahead: animals get happy and experience pleasure. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for the environmental health desk at Living on Earth comes from the Cedar Tree Foundation. Support also comes from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman fund for coverage of population and the environment. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Coming up: a close encounter of the whale kind. First, this emerging science note from Tobin Hack.

Emerging Science Note/Getting to the Root of the Problem

HACK: In their search for regenerative cell therapies that might some day cure Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and other diseases, scientists have studied adult stem cells found in the hair follicles of mice.

Now, for the first time, Pathologist Dr. George Xu, at the University of Pennsylvania, has isolated a new adult stem cell in the human hair follicle. He calls it "multipotent," because it can transform into many kinds of tissue. By culturing these multipotent cells with proteins and minerals, Dr. Xu has already gotten the hair follicle stem cells to differentiate into skin, nerve, muscle, bone, cartilage, and fat tissue.

These multipotent stem cells contain certain proteins – called markers – that have previously been found only in embryonic stem cells. And they can duplicate themselves without the help of other cells, meaning that a single stem cell can be extracted from a hair follicle, cultured in a lab, and produce a colony of cells. That’s a good thing, because only one or two of them exist in every follicle, but thousands would be required for regenerative treatments.

Although stem cells from human hair follicles are much harder to come by, and less versatile than embryonic stem cells, they’re less controversial in today’s political and religious debates over the ethics of stem cell research.

That’s this week’s note on emerging science, I’m Tobin Hack.

Related link:
University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine press release

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Pleasurable Kingdom

Dr. Jonathan Balcombe with his pet rat, Lucy (Photo: Emily Balcombe)


CURWOOD: Now, this isn’t your neighbor’s lawnmower. For many of us, this familiar sound is a little closer to home, maybe coming from that sunny spot on the windowsill, or even right next to you on the couch.


To many pet lovers, the purr of a cat is the sound of pure contentment. And for Jonathan Balcombe it’s an important subject for research. He’s an animal behavioral scientist with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Dr. Balcombe has written a book called “Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good” and he joins me now.

Welcome to Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: Now, I suppose most of us listening to us talk would say, of course animals feel pleasure, but how do you prove that, on a scientific level?

BALCOMBE: It’s a good question. And that’s really probably why there has been so little about pleasure in the past. Scientists have historically been very reluctant to make assumptions about what’s going on inside an animal’s mind. But fortunately in recent years there’s been a bit of a revolution there. And now the notion of animal emotions, animal feelings, and animal experiences are becoming widely accepted in the scientific community. So no longer is it just one petting one’s cat and seeing pleasure. We are now beginning to talk about that more broadly.

CURWOOD: How about a little empirical evidence.

BALCOMBE: Well as a behaviorist I would try to appeal to what animals, how animals behave. You know ants have a relationship with aphids. And aphids live on plants and they suck the juices from the plant. And they exude what’s called honey dew from the rear end of the aphid. And the ants go for this and they’ve co-evolved with the aphids and they actually tend to them. So the aphids benefit by being protected and the ants benefit by getting this reward. Well, honeydew isn’t just water, it’s sweet. So, if the ants go for sweet things is it just chemical or are they actually experiencing something sweet? I just think it’s an example of that we need to consider the possibility that there is some level of perception and therefore appreciation of the taste.

CURWOOD: Let’s talk about sex among animals. Insects have a lot of sex. Do they have a good time?

Dr. Jonathan Balcombe with his pet rat, Lucy (Photo: Emily Balcombe)

BALCOMBE: No idea. I would rather talk about sex in say dolphins and bonobos or pigmy chimpanzees. Those are good examples of animals who are very sexual. In the case of dolphins, both males and females have a genital slit. And they take advantage of that in various social settings. Not just mating to try and produce offspring. They will do what’s called tandem ridding where one dolphin will insert his or her dorsal fin into the dorsal fin of the other dolphin be it male or female. And they will swim along that way. Some dolphins also form these sort of small groups that interact in a sort of sexual orgy. It’s actually got a name for it. It’s called a wuzzle.

And in the case of bonobos, pigmy chimpanzees, they are highly sexual animals. Sex is a sort of daily, if not hourly, aspect of their society. It acts a social lubricant. It acts to defray tensions and it helps to perhaps barter for something. I’ve seen some film footage of bonobos in action and they are pretty remarkable, and I write about them at some length in pleasurable kingdom.

CURWOOD: On what basis do you argue that animals enjoy sex?

BALCOMBE: The reason why I think it’s clear that animals enjoy sex is because not all of animal sex is in the context of making babies. It’s clear that there is a lot of shenanigans out there in the animal kingdom that doesn’t have anything to do with making babies. It is motivated primarily by pleasure.

CURWOOD: Well you know, we all have our preferences for food. Some of us don’t like broccoli, I think there was a president of the United States that didn’t like broccoli, and some of us love broccoli. In your book you argue that animals are the same way, huh?

BALCOMBE: Consider the huge importance of food to an animal. An animal has to get food to survive. So, nature should equip animals with a high motivation to get food. And also with the rewards associated with foods to maintain that motivation. So the animal is motivated to look and search for food.

But let me give you an example. Iguanas were placed in terraria and the iguana would sit on a perch with a bright sun lamp over head. These are tropical lizards and they need to be kept warm. Right below the perch was some processed lizard chow. It’s dry. It’s rather boring, at least to our perception. On the other end of the terrarium was a gourmet treat for an iguana. It happens to be a fresh leaf of lettuce. Now, not something we get too excited about perhaps, but that’s a great treat for an iguana. Well these iguanas were willing to leave their perch and go get the lettuce, even though the lettuce was in a deathly cold corner of the terrarium. The animal is willing to trade off that cold to go and get the gourmet treat. It’s a little like us shunning the fruit bowl and driving out on a wintry night to get some donuts.

CURWOOD: Let’s talk about love for a moment.


CURWOOD: Now it’s tricky enough business among human beings, but how much of what we observe as love among animals is in fact just linked to mating for survival. And how much isn’t?

BALCOMBE: Well, survival and experience go hand in hand. And that’s a key point I make in my book. Evolution and experience are compatible. So even though there may be a survival basis for the bonding between a male and female parrot, say, or penguin or monkey. That doesn’t deny the feelings there. Evolution should favor strong emotional feelings where it’s important that animals work together, for instance to raise their young. So, if an animal has a strong emotional attachment to another then that’s going to keep them together. And if they need to work together to, say, raise their chicks in the nest or to raise their young and wean the young then that should be favored by evolution. So it’s a good example of evolution and experience working hand in hand. And pleasure is very much a part of the dynamic that drives this adaptive behavior.

I would say one other thing about love. And that is of course the negative side of love. Of course, love is very complicated and involves a lot of grief and duress in some situations. An example would be when an animal, or one of us, loses a partner. And just as we grieve for prolonged periods, geese and penguins and certainly parrots will grieve. Certainly parrots and geese are well known for grieving behavior. And monkeys and apes as well, if and when they loose their partner. So, even though that clearly is not pleasurable, it is an indication of the richness of the emotions involved, which in turn suggests that they also derive a lot of pleasure from the interaction when they’re together.

CURWOOD: As you look at this, how do you keep your own perspective as a human being out of this particular area of science? I’m thinking in particular of the movie The March of the Penguins, and it sure looks like Mr. and Mrs. and Baby and everything there. In fact, that movie has such power because really, they look like of bunch of folks in tuxedos.

BALCOMBE: Yeah, that’s probably true, and we should always be guarded against what’s called the sin of anthropomorphism. Never the less, anthropomorphism if it is applied correctly is a very useful thing. In fact it’s unavoidable. We can’t help relating what we see to our own experience. That’s sort of our groundwork that we work from. I think what’s really useful to think about with anthropomorphism, when we are trying to interpret animal behavior, is to think critically. Critical anthropomorphism is a term I’ve heard.

Another interesting way of looking at it is to try and place ourselves in the animal’s position. A colleague of mine named Mark Bekoff says if you are looking at dog behavior, try to practice dogomorphism. Try to think of yourself as a dog and as you observe the dog’s behavior place yourself in the dog’s world, as best we can. Obviously we can not do that completely. But then if we make interpretations about the behavior, we’re more likely to be closer to reality – the dog’s reality – than if we merely place it within our own experience.

CURWOOD: Jonathan Balcombe’s book is called “Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good”. Thank you so much, Sir.

BALCOMBE: You’re very welcome. Thank you.

[MUSIC: Adrian Belew “Ballet For A Blue Whale” from Desire Of The Rhino King (Island 1991)]

Related links:
- Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good
- Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine

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A Whale of a Tale

In her element: Lynne Cox after a swim at Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester, MA. (Photo: Ashley Ahearn)

CURWOOD: You might say Lynne Cox is more at home in the water than she is on land.

COX: There’s something really serene about swimming through black water where the sea and the sky sort of blend together and so you sort of feel like you’re swimming across sheets of the cosmos in a way.

CURWOOD: Lynne Cox broke the record for the fastest swim across the English Channel when she was just 15. She swam the Bering Strait –from Alaska to Siberia--during the Cold War to encourage peace between Russia and the U.S.

And without a wetsuit or fins, she swam a mile in the Antarctic Ocean in 38 degree water. Huh, that’s cold! There’s one nautical experience Lynne Cox will surely never forget. It happened when she was a teenager, training in the dark waters off the coast of California before dawn.

Lynne Cox has written about the experience in her book called “Grayson.” That’s the name she gave the whale she encountered that morning so many years ago.

[MUSIC: Yo-Yo Ma “Unaccompanied Cello Suites 1-3 (various selections)” from ‘Bach: The Cello Suites’ (Sony Music – 1997)]

COX: When I was training one morning off the coast of Seal Beach when I had this baby gray whale that I wound up calling Grayson swimming with me. I didn’t know at first what it was. And so, to be swimming along and I feel the water hollow out underneath me and being sucked down into that little hole and being dragged along by the slipstream, I was really scared! And I really had to talk myself down and not just turn and swim out of the water as fast as I could. I had to sort of say, “Well it could be a seal, it could be a dolphin,” and then the mind goes, “Well it could be a shark!” (laughs)

In her element: Lynne Cox after a swim at Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester, MA. (Photo: Ashley Ahearn)

[MUSIC: Yo-Yo Ma “Unaccompanied Cello Suites 1-3 (various selections)” from ‘Bach: The Cello Suites’ (Sony Music – 1997)]

COX: You know then I would talk to myself and say, “Ok, so I’m a little closer to shore because if it is a shark you can then get out of the water quickly”. So, I turned toward the surf line and I looked up and I saw Steve, the old man who ran the bait shop who was a fisherman and knew everything about the ocean. And he was waving his arms frantically at me. And I thought, “Yup it was a shark. It’s time to get out now”. And then and then he shook his head. And so I looked closer and he was cupping his hands around his mouth and he was shouting at me and he was saying, “Lynne, you can’t finish your work out now. You’ve got a baby gray whale. He’s lost and if you go a shore he’ll follow you, he will go aground and he will die. You have to stay out here and help him find his mother”.

[MUSIC: Yo-Yo Ma “Unaccompanied Cello Suites 1-3 (various selections)” from ‘Bach: The Cello Suites’ (Sony Music – 1997)]

COX: I didn’t know how you find a mother whale in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But you know, I was only 17 then. So I would sort of think, ok I can do it. I’m not sure yet how, but maybe if I just try there will be a way to figure out that we can do this.

[MUSIC: Yo-Yo Ma “Unaccompanied Cello Suites 1-3 (various selections)” from ‘Bach: The Cello Suites’ (Sony Music – 1997)]

COX: Then he tried to communicate. He swam over and rolled over and looked at me with one big brown eye. And I looked at him and I thought, oh my gosh he’s looking at me. And you know, he was huge. He was eighteen feet long. And I’m sort of all at once wanting to just touch him and comfort him. And at the same time I’m thinking he’s 18 feet long! Oh my gosh! And so he came very close to me and then would swim away. And then I decided well, you know, you learn in life that sometimes just being with somebody else will make all the difference in the world. So, I decided that I would just stay with him. And maybe by doing that we could together find his mother.

[MUSIC: Yo-Yo Ma “Unaccompanied Cello Suites 1-3 (various selections)” from ‘Bach: The Cello Suites’ (Sony Music – 1997)]

COX: I’d been off shore for about four hours with Grayson and realized that I was really cold and really tired and I needed to get back to shore because I wasn’t going to be ok otherwise. And so, I started swimming towards shore and he realized that. And he swam closer to me like when you swim in the water and you swim close to a friend you get a good drag off them and your swimming is a lot easier. So he swam really close and allowed me to swim in his slipstream.

[MUSIC: Yo-Yo Ma “Unaccompanied Cello Suites 1-3 (various selections)” from ‘Bach: The Cello Suites’ (Sony Music – 1997)]

COX: We made it back to the pier where there were people on the pier watching. And in the mean time the lifeguards who patrol the area had called each other to tell their friends to be on the look out for a lone female whale, gray whale. Who might be somewhere off shore. The fishermen also had radioed their friends. And we got a report there at the end of the pier that ten miles off us, in Huntington Beach, was a gray whale female that was heading towards Seal Beach. And I think that she must have heard Grayson’s calls.

[MUSIC: Yo-Yo Ma “Unaccompanied Cello Suites 1-3 (various selections)” from ‘Bach: The Cello Suites’ (Sony Music – 1997)]

COX: When he came over to me it was obvious to me that he was asking me for his help. And I felt like I could do something. And that’s really one of the big reasons why I wrote this story because I figured out that in life we have big moments- really big moments-where we have a choice of doing something or letting it go by. And I think that that whole episode of being with the whale was really key to everything that I would do through the rest of my life. Because I realized that I could do something, that I could have an impact. And if I tried I would get a little bit closer with him to whatever we wanted to accomplish.

[MUSIC: Yo-Yo Ma “Unaccompanied Cello Suites 1-3 (various selections)” from ‘Bach: The Cello Suites’ (Sony Music – 1997)]

CURWOOD: And yes, mother and baby did reunite. Lynne Cox’s book about her experience with the baby gray whale is called “Grayson.” Our story was produced by Living on Earth’s Ashley Ahearn.

Related link:
Lynne Cox’s website

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[MUSIC: Kathy Mattea “Acoustic Guitar Instrumental” from Spotland Productions Live In Studio Performance (Nashville TN 2007)]

CURWOOD: Next week on Living on Earth. She grew up in West Virginia coal country and then headed to Nashville. Country Music singer Kathy Mattea talks about the effects of coal mining on families and the environment.

MATTEA: Strip mining is rampant right now and it’s raping, it’s raping the countryside. We have to try to get into a solution so that we can make some kind of sensible transition to cleaner power.

CURWOOD: Coal country crooner, Kathy Mattea, next time on Living on Earth.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Ashley Ahearn, Eileen Bolinsky, Bruce Gellerman, Ian Gray, Ingrid Lobet, and Jeff Young - with help from Bobby Bascomb, and Kelley Cronin.

Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at LOE dot org. I’m Steve Curwood.

From all of us here at Living on Earth, thanks for listening.

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