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

November 15, 1996

Air Date: November 15, 1996


The Eden Alternative: Seems So Simple / Brenda Tremblay

Following up on an earlier interview on the subject, Living on Earth sent reporter Brenda Tremblay to spend time visiting a nursing home where the principles of the "Eden Alternative" are put to use. The elderly and infirm have an array of companions at the Chase Nursing Home in New Berlin, New York including school children, dogs, pet birds and cats . They also have gardens to tend, and this inclusion of "deep ecology" principles connecting people to life itself appears to be giving some residents more reasons to stay alive healthier and longer. (16:30)

State of the Oceans Essay

Steve Curwood reflects on his recent trip to the Caribbean where he learned from attending a conference with a number of marine scientists that the oceans are in deeper trouble than he knew or realized before. (02:55)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Facts about . . . the Old Farmer's Almanac. (01:15)

Temperate Forest Biopreserve / Tatiana Schreiber

A land preserve is being planned in Ithaca, New York that would be the first known temperate forest biopreserve with chemical prospecting for pharmaceutical plants in mind. Tatiana Schreiber reports on the hopes of what may be gained from the project, who is formulating it, and why. (09:10)

Fabulous Fungi / Sy Montgomery

Commentator Sy Montgomery praises mushrooms despite their sometimes sullied reputation. (02:35)

German Mag-Lev Train / Michael Lawton

Germany is investing four billion dollars on a new transportation system; the high-speed magnetic levitation train will run between Berlin and Hamburg. Michael Lawton reports from northern Germany on momentum for the train, and what its critics are saying. (07:30)

Farm in Fall: Autumn Reminiscences / Jane Brox

Author Jane Brox's fifth essay in a series on the seasons at her family farm in Dracut, Massachusetts brings the year full cycle to the autumn apple harvest and the anniversary of her father's death. (05:48)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright c 1996 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Pye Chamberlain, Scott Horsley, Brenda Tremblay, Tatiana Schreiber, Michael Lawton
COMMENTATORS: Sy Montgomery, Jane Brox

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

A movement that started in upstate New York is changing the way we think about nursing homes. It's called the Eden Alternative. Its purpose is to transform drab and dreary institutions into more natural human habitats. And its backers say it can help enhance the lives of millions of elderly Americans.

THOMAS: I do believe that a human being with a reason for living is a powerfully adaptive and resilient creature. A human being that feels there's no longer any reason for them to exist is prone to infection, disease, depression, and death. Those are the stakes that are being played for in nursing homes all the time.

CURWOOD: The Eden Alternative this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: From Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley. The Supreme Court is deciding whether people may sue the Federal Government for doing too much to protect endangered species. Lower courts have ruled that people who suffer economic harm as a result of efforts to protect endangered species can't sue over how the Federal law is enforced. But two Oregon ranchers and two state irrigation districts, citing an estimated $75 million worth of damages in 1992, are trying to persuade the nation's highest court that they're entitled to challenge the law's enforcement. During arguments the high court seemed to side with the plaintiffs. A government lawyer met persistent challenges from the justices, as he asked them to rule that the law lets people sue only to seek more, not less, protection for endangered species. The court's decision will be announced by July.

The Environmental Protection Agency says it has lost or misplaced about 200 documents from dozens of chemical companies that could contain sensitive and valuable information. Pye Chamberlain reports from Washington.

CHAMBERLAIN: An internal memo says the incident will embarrass the Agency, and could hurt efforts now underway to get new information about dangerous materials from the chemical industry. EPA is proposing regulations requiring companies to tell EPA about new products that could be harmful to people and the environment. They would also force companies to disclose newly discovered dangers about well-known materials. A spokesman for the chemical industry says the loss of the documents raises grave questions about EPA's management of data. Companies are concerned that the loss could give competitors trade secrets about formulas and manufacturing processes worth millions of dollars. EPA says it handles half a million documents, and misplacing 200 is not a serious security problem. For Living on Earth, I'm Pye Chamberlain in Washington.

NUNLEY: Thailand is the first developing nation in the world to ban the production and import of refrigerators with chlorofluorocarbons. The ban takes effect on January 1st, one year after the deadline proposed on developed countries by the UN's Montreal Protocol. CFCs, which are widely used as coolants in refrigerators and air conditioners, are believed to be a major contributor to the destruction of the Earth's protective ozone layer. Less ozone means an increase in damaging ultraviolet radiation from the sun, damage in crops, and increasing the risk of skin cancer for humans and animals. The Thai refrigerator industry has grown rapidly in the past decade, with 7 companies producing more than 1 million refrigerators annually.

Doctors have found a group of Nairobi prostitutes who have been able to resist the virus that causes AIDS. Researchers say 43 of the more than 400 prostitutes they studied for nearly a decade never became infected with HIV, despite repeated exposure to the virus. In August US doctors reported they had identified a genetic mutation that made about 1% of Caucasians studied resistant to HIV infection. This mutation has not been found in the African population or among Japanese. Scientists say once they know how the African women resisted infection, the knowledge can be used to develop a vaccine or a treatment for AIDS. The study appeared in the British medical journal Lancet.

Researchers in San Diego say they can find no evidence of Gulf War Syndrome in the hospital records of more than 1 million service people, and they say it may be impossible for scientists ever to establish whether such a syndrome even exists. From KPBS, Scott Horsley has this story.

HORSLEY: Researchers compared the medical records of service people who served in the Gulf with those who did not and found Gulf War veterans were not hospitalized at any higher rate. Dr. Gregg Graves of San Diego's Naval Health Research Center says the finding should be reassuring to veterans that their service in the Gulf did not put them at greater risk. His study, and another with similar findings, are published in the New England Journal of Medicine. While Gulf War veterans did have a higher incidence of some kinds of hospital visits, researchers say that's typical after any combat situation, and probably results from stress, delayed care, and postwar pregnancy. Some Gulf veterans have complained of mysterious symptoms, such as headaches, fatigue, and sleep disorders, and it's been suggested these might be linked to Iraqi use of chemical weapons. While these studies tend to discount that, a deputy editor of the New England Journal says they're unlikely to end the debate over the cause or existence of Gulf War Syndrome. Additional studies are still underway. For Living on Earth, I'm Scott Horsley in San Diego.

NUNLEY: Officials in Glen Ellen, Illinois, say their town's lake is being overrun by goldfish. Apparently, goldfish owners tired of their pets are dumping them into nearby Lake Ellen. Now the lake has 350,000 goldfish, some more than a foot long. Anyone who's ever had goldfish knows they can make quite a mess. In this case officials figure it's going to cost up to $300,000 to clean their giant fishbowl, and that's a lot to swallow.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Jan Nunley.

Back to top

(Theme music up and under)

The Eden Alternative: Seems So Simple

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Going to a nursing home for long-term care can be a traumatic experience for anyone, especially for people used to living active lives. While their bodies are being treated for chronic physical problems, their spirits often wither in a sterile and lonely environment which is nothing like home. But it doesn't have to be that way. A few years ago, the staff and residents of a small rural convalescent facility in upstate New York began to transform their surroundings to make it more like home. They brought in pets. They filled the place with plants and gardens. And they scheduled regular visits by children. They called it the Eden Alternative, and they found that their effort to create a biologically diverse environment changed their lives. We asked producer Brenda Tremblay to explore the goings on at the Chase Nursing Home in Berlin, New York. She prepared this report.

(An old woman's voice crying out)

TREMBLAY: The nursing homes in my imagination are low-slung cinderblock buildings on the outskirts of town. Inside, the halls are lined with listless, bored, elderly people in wheelchairs, parked side by side with demented residents who moan and cry out. Frankly, I hate nursing homes. And I'm not alone. My father says that every time he visits his mother at a nursing home in Michigan, he feels like throwing himself through a plate glass window. So when I went to Chase Nursing Home to check out the Eden Alternative, I was curious but skeptical. I was prepared for the worst.

(Traffic sounds)

TREMBLAY: Chase Memorial Nursing Home is in the town of New Berlin, a small rural community in upstate New York. I arrived in the morning, just as the residents were getting up. So were the birds.

(Bird calls and soft voices)

NEEGER: Of course, the first thing in the morning is my Bible reading, and I finished that just before I came here, so -- that comes first.

TREMBLAY: Beth Neeger is 86 years old. She's lived at Chase Nursing Home for more than 20 years. Her husband was a church minister. He died a few years after they were both in a serious car accident. When Beth's injuries brought her to Chase, she said it was an okay place to live. But when the animals came, things changed.

NEEGER: My -- it's been wonderful. Of course, I specialize with the dogs. (Laughs) But the birds are nice, too. It's great. They just -- seem to liven up the place for everybody.

TREMBLAY: The resident dogs, Target and Ginger, are lounging in the reception area when I arrive, just a few feet away from the aviary: a 5-foot wide, 7-foot tall cage made of wire, glass, and wood. Inside the aviary about 20 zebra and society finches flit from branch to branch. One of them is sitting on an egg in a nest box. Chase Nursing Home is full of birds, plants, and animals. Almost every resident has a pair of birds in her room. As a nurse, Joyce Costeen has witnessed the effects of the birds and animals on residents like Norma Parker, who came here 4 years ago.

COSTEEN : You know, and she did tell me, when I admitted her because I was the unit manager on the second floor at that point in time, that you know, I'm not going to be here long, I came here to die.

TREMBLAY: Joyce says she hears that line a lot when people come into the nursing home. But sometimes things work out differently.

COSTEEN : Norma will be 100 years old in November, and the one cat stays on her bed. As soon as she awakens the first thing she does is reach her hand up to make sure that the cat is there. And it's really made a big, big difference for her. Just something that seems so simple.

(Woman: "All right, who's turn? Fred's turn." A boy shouts. "Come on, Fred! Try again.")

TREMBLAY: Every morning a group of 3- and 4-year-olds from a nearby daycare play in the hallways of the nursing home. The residents sit nearby and watch. Occasionally, a resident will reach out and talk to or hug a child. This morning, 75-year-old Margaret McDonald is watching the kids bowl. Margaret's eyes shine when 4-year-old Brett scores a strike.

McDONALD: If the little people are grumpy, I leave them alone, until they're ready to talk. Which doesn't take very long. (Laughs) But usually they, let alone, they want to tell you their problems. I listen to every one that they have. And they'll say well what would you do? And I offer some suggestions. They seem kind of pleased that you're interested in them.

TREMBLAY: Margaret is a true extrovert. She was a telephone operator for many years before retiring and eventually coming to Chase Nursing Home. She never married. Aside from a niece and nephew, the people and animals at Chase are all she has. They provide her with more than just companionship. They give Margaret a sense of being needed.

McDONALD: I have a cat that comes in my room, jumps up on my bed, stretches out. We have a nice time together.

TREMBLAY: Do you have birds in your room?

McDONALD: Two. Oh, the cats watch them but they don't do anything. (Laughs) They just watch them. Another thing, they're well-fed, so they're not hungry. (Laughs)

(Footfalls on gravel, up stairs)

TREMBLAY: The hallways at Chase Nursing Home were much quieter 6 years ago, when a young doctor named Bill Thomas moved into the area. Dr. Thomas and his wife Judy live a few miles away, overlooking a valley in central New York State. There are no neighbors in sight from the porch of their house.

THOMAS: I really came to this hilltop where we're sitting now, really very much with the idea that I was going to create my own kind of solution to the world's problems up on my hill. I was going to have my own electricity, my own kind of root cellar, you know, my own milk from my own goats. And that I really didn't need anybody, and I was going to be very independent. I was led to the work at the nursing home really through chance. It was not my intention to get mixed up in it, but when I did, the most important thing I learned was that we all depend on each other far, far more than I was willing to admit.

TREMBLAY: Thomas says that as he began to work with residents, he saw himself reflected in their lonely, listless attitudes. Suddenly, he felt as though his attempt to remain detached from the outside world was somehow misguided. In 1991, he and his colleagues began drawing up a plan to alleviate the residents' boredom and isolation.

THOMAS: I had a big sheet of paper in front of me and I made lists of all kinds of sort of scientific names for it. And I realized it really is not a scientific thing; it's more a -- more a response to the human spirit. And the story of Genesis and the Garden of Eden came to me. I remembered that one of the first things that the Deity had done for humankind was recognize loneliness and then respond by making the animals and ultimately the woman, and I thought here we are in creating nursing homes where that need is just completely neglected. And so it seemed that if we were to aim for Eden, we'd be doing a lot better for ourselves than aiming for some kind of ultimate institutional machine that answers all the body's needs.

(A public address system calls someone to the front desk. Metal squeaks.)

TREMBLAY: Chase Nursing Home is a far cry from the idyllic Garden of Eden. But as I walked around I had to admit to myself it's an interesting place to hang out. It seems more like the combination of a pet store, a shopping mall, and a college dorm, than the nursing homes in my experience. It's full of life. There are hanging baskets of plants everywhere. The sun streams in through frilly curtains in the skylights. Grapevines form an arbor that lead me into one hallway the residents call Sunset Lane, where music is pouring out of the beauty salon.

(Music plays: "Good-bye little boy. Good-bye little joy...")

TREMBLAY: Only the faint smells of medication and urine in the air belie the fact that most of the people here are ill. Down the hall, members of the nursing staff are making their rounds. Scott is a new nurse's aide at Chase. Juanita has worked here as a licensed practical nurse for 18 years. When I asked Juanita if she could imagine living here, she said yes.

JUANITA: That's my room when I get in here. (Laughs) I can see the front door, I can see the road, and I can see everything that's going on. I know just who's coming and who's going.

TREMBLAY: Good. Well, Scott, you've only worked here 4 months?


TREMBLAY: How do you like it so far?

SCOTT: Oh, I love it. It's much, much more relaxed atmosphere than what I came from. Another facility the same size, only we didn't have the birds and the plants and the interaction with the children. As far as activities it revolved around, like a 10 o'clock and a 2 o'clock activity and that's what all the residents would wait for, in between those times it was pretty quiet. Where here, you know, we have the children in and out from the daycare, there's animals strolling around. [Birds chirp; a piano starts up.] You know, the residents enjoy music and go down into the lobby and listen to the player piano.

(The player piano plays: "Get Me To The Church On Time")

SCOTT: I think the residents are -- are less -- less, you know, restless, maybe. Less anxious. It's just -- it's just a much calmer environment. I think that's the big, the big thing that I see. I feel a lot less stressed here.

(Crickets chirp)

TREMBLAY: The calm feeling that Scott feels inside the nursing home extends to the outside, where staff members have planted extensive flower and vegetable gardens with wide paved paths accessible to wheelchairs. There are raised flowerbeds where residents can get their hands dirty planting and weeding flowers. The garden is a good metaphor for the process that's occurred here. It reflects Dr. Thomas's conviction that as human beings we are deeply attached to the natural world. His belief, he says, goes far beyond the kind of social ecology we read about and hear about in the media.

THOMAS: Social ecology is sort of what we think of as, you know, environmentalism, you know, pick up your trash, try to not burn as much gas. You know. Good stuff, like that, 50 ways you can save the Earth, da da da da da. But the deep ecology, people say, there is a yearning and a need for wildness and a sense that we are hooked into this planet far more deeply than we can even verbalize.

TREMBLAY: Hooking elderly people into the natural world has yielded Thomas dramatic results. The residents of Chase Nursing Home are significantly healthier now than they were before the Eden Alternative. Between 1992 and 1994, Thomas conducted a study comparing Chase Nursing Home with a statistically similar home. He found that the infection rate dropped by half during the study period. The nursing home saved $75,000 a year in drug costs because residents needed less medications. Perhaps most significantly, the death rate dropped 15% the first year of the Eden Alternative and 25% during the second year. Though the study was conducted on a small scale and couldn't prove the cause of the improvements, it suggests that Thomas's prescription is a powerful one. He remembers the case of one man he calls Mr. L.

THOMAS: This was a fellow who had lost his wife recently, who had had an accident, you know, sort of one of these accidents on dry pavement on a clear day. Somehow he survived. And you know, it was really clear that he wasn't going to be able to make it at home, came to the nursing home, on the off-ramp of life (makes a screeching sound). You know, this was it for him; he was checking out. And he, and this man in particular became, very slowly but steadily more and more involved with the dogs that were living there. And started to place himself into a caretaking role for the dogs and taking them out for walks and -- and really, those animals taught him that there was more life to be lived, and it was not time to go. And he strengthened himself and returned to a level of function where he was able to go back home.

TREMBLAY: Don't you think that's an extreme example, in a sense?

THOMAS: No, it is not an extreme example. That's what happens. Those are the stakes that are being played for in nursing homes all the time. I do believe that a human being with a reason for living is a powerfully adaptive and resilient creature. A human being that feels there's no longer any reason for them to exist is prone to infection, disease, depression, and death.


TREMBLAY: Of course, not everyone living at Chase Nursing Home is reinvigorated by the Eden environment. After lunch I met Joyce Waffle in the garden. Joyce was visiting her dad and nervously puffing on a cigarette. Last Spring, she made the painful decision to bring her invalid father to live at Chase Nursing Home. He's still not happy here, and her visits with him are tense.

J. WAFFLE: If he can be happy anywhere in a nursing home, I suppose, you know, it's one of the best, I'll tell you that.

TREMBLAY: Do you like it here?

R. WAFFLE: I do good. I got a nice little home sitting down there.

TREMBLAY: For residents like Roy, nothing can ever replace the feeling of being home. Not the birds, the plants, or the animals. Even human companionship inevitably brings pain and loss.

(A woman calls, "B-10. B-one-oh." Another woman: "Oh, bingo!" "My goodness, here." "One right there.")

TREMBLAY: It's 2 o'clock and time for afternoon bingo. About 30 people, including Margaret and Beth, are sitting at long tables in front of laminated bingo cards and stacks of wooden chips.

(Women: "Okay, Lillian and [inaudible] gotcha?" "Bingo." "Bingo." "Be right there.")

TREMBLAY: During the game, a nurse discovers that a long-time resident has died. The paramedics pull up in a van and wheel her body out while another nurse peels the name plate from her door and slips it into a desk drawer. Although there's no formal announcement, everyone seems to know what's happened. The residents wheel themselves back to their rooms down the long hallway under the grape arbor, like a slow, silent parade of turtles.

(Children in the hallway. Woman: "Stop it right now." Child: "I'm playing Little League next year and I hope I'm the Braves.")

TREMBLAY: But then another group of kids burst in from the local elementary school. Their shouts and laughter shattered the quiet and brought life back into the hallways.

(Child: "My baseball's in the -- she's nursing her." Woman: "This is a good place.")

TREMBLAY: Creating a good place where everyday life is worth living is what proponents of the Eden Alternative hope to offer elderly people. Today more than 100 nursing homes in the United States are Edenizing, trying to create stimulating, life-giving environments for the people who live there. And as I got in the car and headed home from Chase, I had an optimistic feeling that someday, if I or someone I love needs full-time care, a typical nursing home may actually feel like home.

(The player piano plays)

TREMBLAY: For Living on Earth, I'm Brenda Tremblay in New Berlin, New York.

Back to top

(Player piano up and under)

CURWOOD: We'd like to know what you think. Besides the pets, plants, and kids, what steps would you take to make a nursing home more like a real home? Send us your suggestions. You can call our listener line right now at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. The US Postal Service delivers letters to Post Office Box 639, Harvard Square Station, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02238. That's Living on Earth, Post Office Box 639, Harvard Square Station, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02238. And check out our web page at www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org.

(Music up and under)

State of the Oceans Essay

CURWOOD: On occasion I get out from behind my desk and this microphone to do a little reporting. And recently I caught a plane for Jamaica to spend a few days with some of the world's leading marine scientists. It sounded like a dream assignment: a chance to relax in the warm sun in a beautiful spot by the sea. It turned out to be a disheartening experience. The scientists were great people, but the stories they had to tell me were deeply disturbing. Some of course you've already heard on Living on Earth over the years. For example, we've reported on how the world's fishing grounds, once as flush as the great flocks of birds in the sky or the huge herds of buffalo on the plains, are turning barren beneath the waves as we hunt fish with ever more sophisticated gear. But the rest of the seas are all right, yes? Well, no, not according to these scientists.

In speech after speech they recited a litany of emerging dangers.

Item: there's evidence that the entire ocean system has been contaminated with toxic chemicals, and some of the larger creatures are showing disturbing accumulations of poisons in their tissues even if they live thousands of miles from the industrial regions of the world.

Item: there's evidence that a 4-degree rise in the regional temperature of Antarctica is disrupting the entire food chain on which whales, seals, and penguins depend.

Item: there's evidence that the rapid loss of coastal marine habitat is ruining the ability of many aquatic species to reproduce.

Some of these scientists took me diving to show me how the coral reefs, which in diversity are akin to the tropical rainforests on land, are fast disappearing. And there's more. And each of the trends is deeply worrisome. Taken as a whole, they raise the question of our very survival.

In a way it's like living in a house. Individual problems are annoying but manageable. A leaky roof, no heat, backed up plumbing. Any of those are inconvenient but one can get by. But if they all fail at the same time, it starts to become unlivable. While the oceans may seem distant to human affairs, consider that about 95% of the living space on Earth is the ocean. This is a water planet. Life evolved in the oceans, and even today our blood matches the salinity of the seas. Marine scientists say most of our oxygen comes from the seas and that most of our climate control is rooted in the seas. If we didn't have the oceans, they warn, this planet would be as hospitable as Mars.

At the end of their gathering, these scientists met to try to figure out how to issue a warning to the world about this largely ignored threat they see to our survival. I can only say this. We will try our best to keep you informed, so when it comes to the oceans you need not act from ignorance.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

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

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Living on Earth is brought to you by all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt -- whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the W. Alton Jones Foundation; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; and Patagonia: a clothing company committed to making quality outdoor clothing with the earth in mind. For a free catalogue call 1-800-336-9090.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: The search for exotic drugs in our own back yard. Chemical prospecting comes to North America. That's just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

(Theme music up and under)

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

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Nineteen ninety-six has been a milestone year for several renowned publications. The New York Times marked a century under the ownership of the Sulzberger family, and the Wall Street Journal celebrated the centennial of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. But both newspapers were eclipsed by the Old Farmer's Almanac. This popular periodical will soon mark its 205th year, making it the oldest continually running gazette in North America. First published during George Washington's second term in office, the Farmer's Almanac as it was then known was an immediate success. By its second year circulation had tripled to 9,000. Today it stands at more than 4 million. When it started the Almanac was just one of several published at the time. While no one knows for sure what accounted for its success, the Farmer's Almanac's weather and astronomical predictions were sharper than its competitors'. Included in its crystal ball: the July snow of 1816, the 1953 Worcester tornado, and a near-perfect prediction of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. And for this week that's the Living on Earth Almanac, which makes no predictions.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Temperate Forest Biopreserve

CURWOOD: If you have had ovarian cancer, you may have been given the drug Taxol to help fight the disease. Taxol, which has earned hundreds of millions of dollars in sales so far for its manufacturer, Bristol-Myers Squibb, was originally derived from the bark of the yew tree, which grows in the Pacific Northwest. We tend to think of richly diverse tropical rainforests as the sources for natural medicinals, but some of the most commercially valuable drugs, including Taxol, are found in the temperate forests of the United States. These resources have gone largely unexplored. That will soon change if efforts to establish the world's first temperate zone biodiversity preserve are successful. Tatiana Schreiber explains.



SAM: Well, you know wild celery?


SAM: I found one of those things where it was sitting on wild celery...

SCHREIBER: In his circle of family and friends, Dr. Tom Eisner is known as the Bug Man. In the scientific community he is known for coining the term "chemical prospecting." This is the process of combing nature for potentially useful chemicals.

(Footfalls through tall grasses)

EISNER: Well if you seem to come up on a plant where the leaves are not injured by insects, that tells you something. It tells you that the leaves must be filled with some kind of chemical that wards off insects. Well, a chemical that might repel insects in the plant could secondarily inhibit the growth of cells, and by so doing could be used for the control of the growth of tumors. In other words, could be used as an anti-cancer agent. You never know what hidden dimensions there are to some chemical that evolved in nature for one purpose or the other.

SCHREIBER: A researcher at Cornell University, Eisner in 1991 helped develop a compact between the nation of Costa Rica, a private biodiversity institute located there called Inbio, and the US-based Merck Pharmaceutical Company. The groundbreaking agreement allows Merck to collect natural products from Costa Rica's conserved wildlands as potential sources of new drugs. In exchange, Merck gave Imbio more than a million dollars of research money and agreed to return a percentage of any profits made to Costa Rica, specifically for conservation efforts. Now, Dr. Eisner is forging a similar arrangement closer to home. A proposal between Cornell, the Finger Lakes Land Trust, and one or more pharmaceutical partners, would establish the nation's first temperate zone biodiversity preserve just 12 miles south of Ithaca.

EISNER: And as soon as we're off the road -- oh God, it's gorgeous.

DEMUNN : Isn't this incredible? It's this whole area that you see.

SCHREIBER: Eisner and forest ecologist Mike Demunn gaze across a sea of goldenrod to a small pond and beyond to a marsh in a steep forested ridge. This 250-acre site contains just about every kind of temperate zone habitat in the Finger Lakes region. There are lakes, beaver ponds, high and low elevation forests, rich glacial soils and bare rock, swamps and grass land. An important tributary into Cayuga Lake runs through the area, and some 110 bird species have been counted here so far.

HODGE: Pretty dry in here.

EISNER: Mm hm.

SCHREIBER: To the casual observer it's a beautiful spot. But to researchers like Kathie Hodge it's treasure.

HODGE: Oyster mushrooms!

EISNER: All right! Good!

SCHREIBER: Hodge is a graduate student at Cornell. She studies mushrooms and she figures out how to name and place newly-discovered fungi according to their species and genera.

HODGE: Oh, no, they're not. What are they? [The group laughs] They're not oyster mushrooms! See again, when you turn them over? They don't have gills on the bottom; they have pores.

SCHREIBER: Hodge is looking for oyster mushrooms, so she can show me the way they secrete a toxic liquid that paralyzes certain kinds of worms as they crawl by. Then the fungi grow into the worms and devour them. It's chemical interactions like these that provide the clues to compounds that may one day become useful drugs.

(Sounds echoing indoors)

HODGE: These are big tanks of liquid nitrogen. So I'm going to open it and there's going to be, like, a cloud of smoke's going to come out. Don't worry.

SCHREIBER: Back at her lab Hodge shows me another fungus found in the area.

HODGE: So now we're looking really up close at the cyclosporin fungus, and we can see a lot of spores floating around the kind of the dark circles here. And it's squeezing out the spores.

SCHREIBER: In its sexually reproducing phase, the spores of this fungus may land on an insect. If they do, they quickly multiply, taking over the insect's body. This stage of the organism's life cycle hadn't been seen before, and it's significant because this is the same mold that produces cyclosporin, an immuno-suppressant used to prevent rejection during organ transplants.

HODGE: We know what it is now, so we know what's related to it. So if we're looking for similar drugs to cyclosporin we can look among those fungi that are close relatives and have a better chance of finding another cyclosporin type drug.

SCHREIBER: And that could mean big profits for a drug manufacturer. Still, chemical prospecting remains a big risk for pharmaceutical companies. Dr. Ashit Ganguli is Vice President for Research at Shering-Plough.

GANGULI: The number of samples that you have to examine to get anything worthwhile is huge. And then the development process associated with getting to a stage where it can be commercialized, it takes a lot of time, effort, and money. And so when all this is said and done, you most probably take, from the time you found something interesting until it becomes a drug, perhaps 7, 10 years.

SCHREIBER: Despite the risk, Shering-Plough is interested in developing a relationship with Cornell for collection in the Ithaca preserve. The reason, Ganguli says, is that synthetic methods will never completely replace nature when it comes to designing drugs. He points out that half of all pharmaceuticals currently on the market are derived from natural sources. Cornell is hoping that pharmaceutical partners like Schering-Plough will provide research fellowships and technical training for students. Meanwhile, the Finger Lakes Land Trust is looking to secure up to 3% of any profits the drug companies make to conserve more land. Proponents call it a win-win situation, but some observers say proceed with caution.

HAMMOND: Right now it's -- it's sort of a global pandemic. These sort of deals are being proposed and are being executed really just about everywhere.

SCHREIBER: Ed Hammond is with the Rural Advancement Foundation International. He says in many countries, US companies are taking out patents on life forms, reaping large profits, and failing to fairly compensate communities where the organisms are found, or the indigenous people whose knowledge helped gain access to useful species. The biodiversity preserve near Ithaca is privately held and uninhabited, so it's unlikely there'll be any direct harm to the community. But Hammond says the new partnership should still raise questions.

HAMMOND: One of the principal, you know, ideas on which some of these deals are based is that the pharmaceutical company will patent the plant or the DNA segment from the plant or one of its parts, in order to commercialize a product derived from them. And we ultimately feel that, you know, the patenting of life is both something that's immoral and is technically unworkable.

SCHREIBER: Finally, Hammond asks: does linking conservation of biodiversity to potential economic value for industry undermine efforts to save habitat for its own sake? Carl Leopold, son of naturalist Aldo Leopold and one of the founders of the Finger Lakes Land Trust, doesn't see it that way.

LEOPOLD: The main beauty of this, it seems to me, is that there isn't any effort until now to really study the chemical ecology of this particular region, the northeastern United States. Most chemical ecology work has been done in the sub-tropics or in the tropics. So we feel very proud to be a pioneer in setting aside a beautiful piece of terrain that really is important to the United States.

SCHREIBER: Leopold says the land trust isn't counting on pharmaceutical royalties for future land conservation, but at least now some money might be returned to the land. And Leopold says the land trust will create strict guidelines to make sure natural resources aren't depleted or harmed as a result of prospecting. And for Cornell's Dr. Tom Eisner, that's the main point. That no species is worthless, and none is obsolete.

EISNER: What we find in species nowadays is a reflection of not so much what is there but of that which we know how to find. New techniques for looking at coming on line all the time. So maintaining this extraordinary library of information known as Mother Nature is the most important thing we can do for our descendants.

SCHREIBER: For Living on Earth, I'm Tatiana Schreiber in Ithaca, New York.

Back to top


Fabulous Fungi

CURWOOD: Mushrooms, even the ones that may contain hidden cures for disease, don't usually get a lot of respect here in the United States. But elsewhere they are practically revered. For example, historian Valerie Pavlovna Wasson devoted 400 pages to the topic in her book Russians, Mushrooms, and History. Commentator Sy Montgomery looks at why we fear the magnificent fungi, and why we shouldn't.

MONTGOMERY: They appear overnight as if by magic, and disappear just as quickly. Their variety is staggering. They resemble parasols, lace, petals, tongues, ears, corals, Danish pastries. Forget Disney. Beneath our feet on a cool, wet day, we can find the original Magic Kingdom. The fungi, neither plant nor animal but a fabulous kingdom all its own.

Some of these strange and wonderful creatures have not only delighted the eye for centuries but often nourished humankind when almost no other food was available. And yet, like so many creatures of our diminishing misunderstood wilds, wild mushrooms strike fear into the hearts of many Americans. Let's face it: we are, as David Rora puts it in his book Mushrooms Demystified, fungo-phobic.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, peppered his landscapes with mushrooms only to create an air of gloom and death. D.H. Lawrence compared the mushroom to that most loathsome of creatures, the British bourgeoisie. Even Emily Dickinson insulted mushrooms in a short poem. "Had Nature any outcast face/Could she a sun condemn/Had Nature an escariot/That mushroom -- it is him."

One student in a mycology class was afraid to even touch the mushrooms the students found in the woods. When the professor, Rick Vanderpole, asked what was wrong, the student replied "Don't they hurt you?" For the record, no mushroom ever attacked a person, even when provoked. Touching mushrooms does not produce warts, rashes, or poisoning. And of the thousands of North American mushroom species, only 6 are known to be deadly poisonous.

Does this mean you should blindly gobble every fungus you see? Of course not. You needn't eat them to enjoy them. The fleshy fruits of fungi are a feast for the soul.

CURWOOD: Commentator Sy Montgomery is author of The Spell of The Tiger. She comes to us from New Hampshire Public Radio.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: A final harvest on a family farm reaps memories for writer Jane Brox. That's coming up on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

German Mag-Lev Train

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Germany is spending 6 billion Marks, or about $4 billion, of public money, to build a new transport system. It's called the Trans-Rapid Magnetic Levitation Train, and by the year 2005 it'll carry passengers between Berlin and Hamburg at speeds of up to 260 miles per hour. Its supporters argue the train is a non-polluting alternative to traveling by automobile and air. But German environmental activists aren't so sure. They say the so-called Mag-Lev train will damage the competitiveness of existing rail transportation, and they question claims that it's really less polluting. Michael Lawton reports.

(Ambient conversation)

LAWTON: An excited group of tourists sit and wait for the Trans-Rapid Magnetic Levitation Train to get underway at its test track in the small town of Lathon in northern Germany. A ride on the 25-mile-long track has become one of the few major attractions of the flatlands near the Dutch border. So far, the Trans-Rapid has carried 300,000 people, and it hasn't even gone into commercial service yet.

(A man's voice over a microphone)

LAWTON: Herr Hugenberg is our guide. He looks like everybody's favorite uncle: white-haired and reliable, and he sounds a bit bored at telling these facts over and over again. The perfect choice to make us think that the Trans-Rapid is very normal. The train lifts itself just one centimeter from the ground and we're off. The acceleration is smooth and easy, and going around curves at high speed is quite comfortable. The slightest excitement enters Herr Hugenberg's voice as we reach 260 miles, 420 kilometers an hour.

(Hugenberg's voice continues)

LAWTON: The trouble with high-speed transport is that if it's any good, it doesn't feel like high speed. Of course, this is only a prototype and it's noisier and it rattles more than the production models will later, but even so you don't get a sense of traveling that fast.

(Voice and surrounding sounds fade out)

LAWTON: The consortium of German companies which has developed the Trans-Rapid has been working at it initially in competition and then in cooperation for around 20 years. Big names like Siemens, Thyssen, and Daimler-Benz, have invested millions in the technology, which has certain clear advantages over more conventional systems. Electromagnets make the train float over the track. there are no wheels so there's no friction loss there. And the Trans-Rapid doesn't carry a motor. The electric induction coils which drive the cars are in the track, so the train is light and needs relatively little energy to power it. But all this high-tech wizardry will be very expensive, altogether 9 billion marks, $6 billion, to build the 190-mile stretch between Berlin and Hamburg. Hans-Christoph Atzpodien, chief executive of the company which will build the Trans-Rapid, thinks it's money well spent.

ATZPODIEN: Between Berlin and Hamburg we need a new high-speed track because we will have a huge increase of passengers between these two cities. We can be quicker in connecting Hamburg's main station to the center of Berlin. We need only 60 minutes, and that again means we get more people from the motorways and from the short haul air traffic to the environmentally positive Trans-Rapid than any other railway alternative would do. That is the point.

LAWTON: But the environmentalists in Germany are united against the Trans-Rapid. They argue why that massive investment when the conventional train is doing so well? The railroad already goes into every sizable town, and the speed on the major routes is up to 250 kilometers an hour. The latest inter-city express train will even manage speeds of up to 300 kilometers, or 190 miles an hour. With improvements to the existing track, this train could run between Hamburg and Berlin almost as fast as the Trans-Rapid, but for a ninth of the cost. But what about the Trans-Rapid's environmental advantages. Walter Schmidt, of German Friends of the Earth, says the consortium's calculations are too optimistic.

SCHMIDT: It is not as energy efficient as the Trans-Rapid people always say. Even at a velocity of 300 kilometers per hour, it consumes 25% more energy than the inter-city train of the new generation. It is basically a bad amalgamation of a train and a plane. Whereas the plane flies at an altitude of 9 or 12 kilometers, the Trans-Rapid system is like an aeroplane that flies just slightly over the ground, and it has to fight against this air friction, and loses a lot of energy just by cruising through that air friction.

LAWTON: And that air friction is the main objection of the people along the route. There's already considerable opposition from residents who say they don't want to live next to the Trans-Rapid as it pushes aside the air at over 400 kilometers an hour.

(Sounds of the train)

LAWTON: Which will sound something like that. And the Trans-Rapid business plan foresees one of those every 10 minutes in each direction, carrying 40,000 passengers a day. That's another area where the critics say the industry is exaggerating. At the moment, for example, the air route sells just 400 tickets a day. All the same, Hans-Christoph Atzpodien, says that even if the train can't turn a profit, it's still important to build it.

ATZPODIEN: Only if a transportation system is commercially used in the country where it has been developed, then it can be subject to selling to other countries, and that is the same thing true for the Trans-Rapid.

LAWTON: Well, now the government has approved it and the Trans-Rapid will probably be built. So what are its export chances? Ross Kapon is executive director of the American National Association of Railroad Passengers. He thinks the German environmentalists have it right. He says for the US, too, it would be more cost effective and make more environmental sense to simply upgrade the train. But if, as its operators expect, the Trans-Rapid proves to be a success between Hamburg and Berlin, wouldn't that make him change his mind?

KAPON: Well that's the big if. Sure, if you get something that's a proven product and it works and it does for a reasonable cost what its promoters say it will, then certainly. I mean, one of the reasons that many people are promoting high-speed rail in America is precisely because it works so well in places like Germany. You do not have to throw away proven technology to get something that looks modern and acts modern.

(Sounds of the train)

LAWTON: The Trans-Rapid has been going backwards and forwards up here on its test track for the last 12 years. Its advocates say it's time for it to be doing something useful for a change. But for all the high technology, the environmentalists think the Trans-Rapid is a solution to a problem which doesn't exist. For Living on Earth, this is Michael Lawton in northern Germany.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Farm in Fall: Autumn Reminiscences

CURWOOD: During the past year, commentator Jane Brox has taken us on a journey through the seasons on her family's farm in northern Massachusetts. Last winter, she introduced us to her father, who was born when family farms were the norm in the Merrimack Valley. Today, only a few people still work the land. Jane and her father were among them. Just before we aired that story her father, John Brox, passed away. In the spring, Ms. Brox told us what it was like to go through a time of planting, renewal, and hope for the first time without him. At the end of the summer she introduced us to her farm stand, where city folks came to shop and where she longed for the end of the long harvest season. Now, as the long shadows of winter again start to fall over her home, Jane Brox reflects on the long year since her father died, and the changes that have come to her and her farm.

BROX: The air no longer smells of fermenting windfall apples. It's clear and cold and a harder light falls on the bare turned branches of the fruit trees. The farm stand is closed tight. Except for a few rows of cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower, which I could still pick on a warm day, all the fields are in rye. What remains of the vibrant, tight-hearted fall, is the scrape of oak leaves and the small, thin notes of finches as they peck at seed.

(Sounds of scribbling)

BROX: I work inside at a table set in a west-facing bay window that frames a solitary Baldwin apple tree. It's one of the oldest fruit trees here, planted by the man who built my white farmhouse, who lived a more frugal life than I could imagine, repairing with scrap, insulating with paper, saving string. Baldwins were a standard part of that earlier life, when every family farm had its own orchard and every tree yielded a different variety of apple: Russet, Greening, Winesap, Sheetnose, Ben Davis, Astracan.


BROX: A few trees of those varieties still bear on gravelly New England hillsides. Their gray bark trunks have thickened with the years. Their crabbed branches clatter in the winter wind. Commercial apple trees will never look that way again. Most have been cut down and replaced, if not by houses, by dwarf or semi-dwarf trees, which are easier to pick and produce a higher yield per acre. And the old kinds of apples, fallen to market pressures, have been replaced by more uniform, redder varieties: Macintosh and Delicious that everyone knows, crisp bright Macoun, perfect for eating out of hand.


BROX: But the Baldwin tree still bears a good crop every other year. This fall its branches almost touched the ground, it was so laden. The fruit slowly turns a brownish red all September, before it deepens to a darker red, with a rusty splay at its stem. Spicy and juicy, long valued for its keeping qualities, I can still make a pie from its fruit in March. Baldwins are slow to ripen and sweeter after the frost, so this tree is one of the last to be picked, and its harvest, late this fall, marked the final turn of the difficult year.

(Church music: Ave Maria)

BROX: Back at the start, in the clear winter light of my father's funeral, I couldn't even imagine getting this far.

(Music continues)

BROX: The old farmers hold on a long time, and my father was no different. He had worked so hard to his own dreams and ideas of this place, had for so long alone decided what to grow and where, how to market and to whom. Even in his last months I think he found the necessity to compromise and relent, more difficult than the physical work. Such control doesn't make for easy succession, and there are days, I feel, we're all the more lost for his having held on so stubbornly.


BROX: Even so, it may be that very stubbornness that also makes it possible for us to continue. My father had his choices. He could have done other things to greater profit and with less love with his life and this land. Having chosen to continue farming here, he has given us the chance to go on, too. And in the end, however well he may have prepared us, it would never have been enough. Since it's not so much the work we're unprepared for as it is his absence.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Jane Brox lives in Dracut, Massachusetts. Her latest book, Here and Nowhere Else, won this year's L.L. Winship Pen New England Award. Her essays are produced by Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our program is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. Our production team includes George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, Liz Lempert, Constantine Von Hoffman, Jan Nunley, Susan Shepherd, Julia Madeson, and Peter Shaw. We also had help from Michael Giammusso, Kim Chaney, and Jason Kral. Special thanks this week to Kathleen and Jeffrey Adams. Chris Ballman is our senior producer and Dan Grossman edited this week's program. Our engineers are Frank DeAngelis and Mark Navin at WBUR, and Jeff Martini at Harvard University. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Major funding for Living on Earth comes from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the Great Lakes Protection Fund and the George Gund Foundation for Great Lakes reporting; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation; the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; and in part by Patagonia: a clothing company committed to making quality outdoor clothing with the earth in mind. For a free catalogue call 1-800-336-9090.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


This Week's Books


Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth