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

November 29, 1996

Air Date: November 29, 1996


Living Machines

In this feature, Steve Curwood meets with bioengineers who are taking cues from nature's design to solve problems. Since nature is intelligent as well as often lethal, bioengineers encounter ethical issues as to how their research may be applied. Steve Curwood narrates this segment produced by Sandy Tolan. (16:10)

Listener Builds Straw Bale Winery

A Living on Earth listener in San Luis Obispo, California has erected buildings on her winery from straw bales. She claims this material can withstand the elements as well as traditional materials, despite the warnings in The Three Little Pigs. (04:25)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Facts about... Cryptozoology. (01:15)

Batter Up: Throwing Seedballs!

John Burnett reports from New Mexico on a new method of seed planting that's being touted as easy and economical. Imported from Japan, the method is popularly referred to as "seedballing" and it entails rolling seeds in a ball of clay about the size of a baseball and tossing them on to the land. (10:15)

Clearcutting: All In a Day's Work / Robert Leo Heilman

Former logger Robert Leo Heilman comments on the trouble he had justifying to himself that his work was ethical. Heilman's collection of essays, Overstory Zero: Real Life in Timber Country, is published by Sasquatch Books. (03:16)

Where Food Comes From / Tom Verde

A program in Hartford, Connecticut aims to connect school children to nutrition by having students visit the farms that provide produce to their school cafeteria. Tom Verde reports on this new school lunch and education program. (06:50)

Sensible Cookware

In this consumer advice segment, Steve Curwood talks with Debra Dadd Redalia about the possible health effects of cooking with various types of cookware. Redalia is the author of The Non-Toxic Home and Office. (03:50)

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
NEWSCASTER: Lisa Mullins
REPORTERS: Laura Carlson, Robert Schroeber, John Burnett, Tom Verde
GUESTS: Frederica Churchill, Debra Lynn Dadd
COMMENTATOR: Robert Leo Heilman

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Today, taking cues from nature to solve problems. One scientist is trying to find out why tuna can swim so fast and turn on a dime.

TRIANTAFYLLOU: By imitating nature, the ultimate goal is to find out what is behind it. In the long run we will not like to make the ships look like tunas. We would like the ships to use the principles that make the tunas go fast.

CURWOOD: Also, more on green design. Rice straw that's usually burned can build houses that can't be blown down.

CHURCHILL: We've heard a lot of little pig jokes, actually (laughs), but in fact straw bale walls, once they are covered with stucco, are more impervious to fire and that kind of damage than a traditional building would be.

CURWOOD: Those stories and more this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this news.

Environmental News

MULLINS: For Living on Earth, I'm Lisa Mullins.

The Environmental Protection Agency's proposed air quality standards could force cities around the nation to find costly new ways to control smog. The new rules would for the first time regulate tiny particles spewed by woodstoves, certain power plants, and many other industrial activities. Seventy-four metropolitan areas are not in compliance with the current Federal standards, and the EPA says it could cost more than $6 billion a year to meet the new rules. The regulations are a blow to industry, which mounted a massive lobbying campaign against them. The industry-funded Air Quality Standards Coalition argued that the scientific evidence was sketchy and the impact too costly. Studies indicate that even in areas that meet current standards, children playing outdoors have respiratory problems. Studies have also shown that hospital admissions for respiratory ailments go up when ozone levels are near the standard's high end. After a public comment period the EPA is expected to make the rules permanent by June.

The scientist who headed last spring's manmade flood that restored the Grand Canyon's ecosystem has quit, saying the government's promises to improve conditions at other dams are merely lip service. From KJZZ in Phoenix, Laura Carlson reports.

CARLSON: Dave Wegner spent the past 13 years working at the Glen Canyon Environmental Studies Office, monitoring the health of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon. Last spring, Wegner watched as Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt triggered a manmade flood in the canyon intended to create beaches and return nutrients to the riverbed. He says scientists were hopeful interest in riparian protection would grow as a result of the flood. Wegner says the Federal Government's decision to close the Environmental Studies Office means knowledge gained over more than a decade of study will be, as he puts it, "walking out the door." For Living on Earth, I'm Laura Carlson.

MULLINS: Despite the concerns of an Oregon forestry official, a timber company cut down all the trees above a home that was later hit by a mudslide, killing 4 people. On November 18th after heavy rains, a mudslide crashed into the southwestern Oregon home of Rick and Susan Moon, killing them and their friends Sharon Marvin and Ann Maxwell. According to a file in the Forestry Department's Office, an official had warned that the home was in a potential mudslide area. Despite that warning, Champion International logged the timber above the home in 1987. A spokesman for the Department of Forestry says the Agency has no power to prohibit the logging. He also says the house was built in an area where there had been mudslides in the past, and that there was a risk of mudslides whether there had been any logging or not.

Brazilian police have recaptured the killer of rainforest activist Chico Mendez 3 years after he escaped from an Amazon prison. Darci Alves Pereira was arrested as he left his sister's home near the Paraguayan border. Police say Pereira was wearing a fake beard and using false documents but did not resist arrest. Pereira confessed to being the trigger man in the 1988 slaying of Mendez, a land activist in the western Amazon. The slaying was ordered by Pereira's father, a rancher who had been prevented by Mendez from cutting down a tract of forest. In 1990 Pereira and his father were each sentenced to 19 years in prison.

Scientists at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois have discovered a new way to clean up TNT at old munitions plants: using molasses. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Robert Schroeber reports.

SCHROEBER: John Manning of Argonne's Environmental Research Division used molasses to clean up a small part of the largest TNT-contaminated site in the US in Joliet, Illinois. He says the bacteria that consume the molasses turned the TNT into carbon dioxide and nutrients.

MANNING: Once you're done with this process you can return the soil to the land. And it acts to some extent like a fertilizer, so it's a natural process that's taking advantage of the native microorganisms, and it also allows you to put something back on the land that has some value.

SCHROEBER: Over a couple of weeks the bacteria remove more than 99% of the TNT at a lower cost than some other restoration techniques. Manning says the molasses method works for other explosives, and he's testing other contaminants like chlorinated solvents and petroleum. For Living on Earth, I'm Rob Schroeber.

MULLINS: Miami authorities will release more than 5,000 carp into canals to gobble up weeds that are clogging the waterways. The canals are used for flood control and boating. The weeds, especially fast-growing hydrilla, hamper the ability to control water flows, but they are the carp's favorite food. The fish cost about $3.50 each and will be collected from farms in Florida and elsewhere in the southeast. Authorities expect to lose some to predators, but hope that once most of them reach their full-grown length of more than a foot long, they'll be able to fend for themselves. Tractors and chemicals are currently used to clear the canals.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Lisa Mullins.

Back to top

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Crows calling by a roadside)

Living Machines

CURWOOD: Human beings in Western civilization have always had a troubled relationship with nature. Fear and respect have long mixed with attempts to harness Nature's power, even to dominate her. "There are still laid up in the womb of nature many secrets of excellent use," wrote Francis Bacon, one of the founders of modern science, 4 centuries ago. "Secrets," he wrote, "which must be bound into service." Now, near the end of the millennium, scientists are turning with a new vigor to the secrets of the natural world, this time to understand how the simplicity and beauty of nature's design might suggest a way human beings can live more efficiently and ecologically. Some say by emulating nature, we can learn how to live in a greener world, but it may not be as simple as all that. Today on Living on Earth, we meet the bioengineers.

(A motor, swirling water)

HALLAHAN: This is the influent pipe. It comes in here and basically it's ...

CURWOOD: She stands in the shadow of dull gray concrete, the hulking bowels of San Francisco's Oceanside Sewage Treatment Plant. An ecologist beside her 18-wheel trailer opened up to display a row of blue steel tanks. She's overseeing an experiment to study how nature can clean human waste.

HALLAHAN: We built a food chain in here, and in the hope that we can turn what we consider waste back into something that will be of use to nature...

CURWOOD: Michelle Hallahan of the Cape Cod-based Ocean Arks Institute is studying how natural systems can clean city waste without huge, power guzzling sewage plants, without chemical laden sludge bound for landfills. This sewage is being treated by good bacteria that eat the coliform and other bad bacteria in a kind of marsh reproduced in these tanks.

HALLAHAN: So we have the good guys living in here, and they're reproducing. And it's their one function in life is just to grab an ammonia molecule and break it down for their food. And by doing this they turn it into nitrate.

CURWOOD: The water moves through willows, over pumice, between mosquito fish and tiny shrimp, through the rows of tanks. In the effluent water at the end of the process, darting fish clean enough to eat, big enough to sell at the market. This little ecosystem is turning bad water into good. They call it a living machine.

HALLAHAN: The idea of the living machine is to build an ecosystem using the tools of nature. So you go out into nature and you say guys, we need something to treat our sewage. Can you help us?

CURWOOD: The living machine was born through an ecologist's careful observation of nature. John Todd saw that marshes and ponds somehow were able to clean up dirty wastewater. So Mr. Todd brought together a team to study how human beings could replicate that process in a kind of natural sewage plant.

HALLAHAN: In some ways it's a movement toward doing things in the more natural sense, learning from nature and taking examples from nature. Looking at nature and seeing that it can clean its own stuff. I mean, man was on the earth long before, like sewage treatment plants ever came along and nature always dealt with man's waste long before we ever became, you know, big settled populations. So obviously the tools are out there, and we just need to find them and use them to our benefit. I think it's foolish not to be -- to be disregarding nature as just oh, something that's pretty. Obviously there's some intelligence there, that we're completely disregarding. We should be taking advantage of it.

CURWOOD: The intelligence of nature. The beauty of a living machine. Engineer Michael Triantafyllou was considering this a few years ago while having lunch with colleagues at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute on Cape Cod.

TRIANTAFYLLOU: It's called Eels Pond. It's a little pond right in Woods Hole where the compass is, and we're going, we have lunches outside on the deck of one of the restaurants, yeah? And we sit around and we talk. And we can see the fishes.

CURWOOD: And that got Michael Triantafyllou to thinking: could engineers learn lessons from fish?

TRIANTAFYLLOU: Then we went to the market and we bought the tuna, a small tuna, just to see how it looks like.

CURWOOD: Okay, what did you see?

TRIANTAFYLLOU: Well, it's a masterpiece of design, first of all the skin is extremely smooth and shiny, and there are places on the body of the fish where it can retract inside its fins, so when it's swimming fast they don't protrude and don't disturb the flow at all.

CURWOOD: And so, from an engineer daydreaming on Cape Cod in 1990, fast forward now to 1996, to a long narrow pool in a basement lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Meet Robo-Tuna, designed to emulate the great bursts of speed and maneuverability of the real thing.

TRIANTAFYLLOU: It is an exact copy of a bluefin tuna hanging from the wall. It's about a meter and a half long.

CURWOOD: Here in MIT's Ocean Engineering Lab, diagrams of fish are taped to overhead pipes. Models of fish ribs and fish tails designed and redesigned lie on cluttered desks next to tool boxes on top of filing cabinets. Real fish in small tanks swim nearby fake fish in big tanks. Every week Dr. Triantafyllou, his brother George, and their students, come to watch their new creation.

(Cranking sounds)

CURWOOD: First it's lowered by a winch into the water.

(Cranking continues)

CURWOOD: And then, silently, the mechanical tuna swims in the current, swishing its tail like a real bluefin tuna.

TRIANTAFYLLOU: The basic principle is that fish, by wiggling their bodies, create eddies. They create moving parts of water, which are swirling. Which are all down their body. And by the time they reach their tail, the tail just repositions those eddies. In the process they reduce drag on their body, and their tail becomes more efficient.

CURWOOD: Dr. Triantafyllou comes off as quiet, almost shy. Yet he's a pioneer in an emerging science. It's called biomimesis, or mimicking nature. The idea is that there's more to gain from respecting and emulating nature than in trying to defeat it.

TRIANTAFYLLOU: The fish has achieved perfection in swimming. Fish have developed a way of manipulating the flow around their body over hundreds of millions of years of evolution. By replaying the living organism, we're able to watch and record things that would take us years of study in the laboratory. That's the excitement. By imitating nature, the ultimate goal is to find out what is behind it. In the long run we will not like to make the ships look like tunas. We would like the ships to use the principles that make the tunas go fast.

CURWOOD: The engineer believes his research could bring about the day when real ships start and turn, accelerate and stop, just like their fleshy counterparts. But for many potential funders, this is too dreamy a notion to support with real research dollars. Today there are few places where this kind of wide-eyed inquiry can still get support.

CURWOOD: Who supports your research?

TRIANTAFYLLOU: The major support comes from the Office of Naval Research.

CURWOOD: What do you think the Navy wants to get out of this?

TRIANTAFYLLOU: The Navy wants always to be at the forefront, and this is one avenue that will lead to new ways of achieving this excellence in washing and propulsion.

CURWOOD: Do you see this as part of a weapons system?

TRIANTAFYLLOU: It could lead to all sorts of obligations. Has no immediate goal. Right now we're at the point where we are discovering those mechanisms. The application will follow in a few years.

CURWOOD: But to others, it's dangerous not to make the connection between the research and the institution that's paying for it.

NOBLE: On the face of it, the fact that this is being done by the Navy should raise some concerns. The Navy has a mission, a military mission.

CURWOOD: David Noble is a professor of history at York University in Toronto. A former MIT professor, Dr. Noble says technology is by nature indifferent to potential implications. So the engineer needs to be guided by a moral compass. The problem, he says, is that too often researchers don't consider the consequences of their work.

NOBLE: The reason they all go to work for the military or so many of them have, is because the military's the biggest playpen, you know, sandbox around, because of the money. So that the enthusiasms of these scientists are indulged by the military. The scientists are given the appearance that they are free to do whatever they want. That in fact is never the case. Their results all have to be reported to their sponsor. We live in an age in which weapons are made by people who don't make weapons.

CURWOOD: The Wright Brothers, of course they invented an airplane, and it gets people around very quickly, but people drop bombs from them, too.

TRIANTAFYLLOU: You have always to think about this, but I think those decisions are made when you go to the polls and you vote, and you make sure that proper people take proper care of their situation. Otherwise you cannot prevent something from being discovered.

CURWOOD: Scientists and engineers argue that the quest to learn nature's secrets is unstoppable. And no matter who supports their work, they say, social benefits ultimately flow out of military research. Think of computers, the Internet, radar, and microwaves. They all started with military dollars. Dr. Triantafyllou believes Robo-Tuna could someday transform the shipping industry, bringing dramatic efficiencies in the use of fuels. Possibilities abound, say the researchers, whether it's the macro-engineering to craft a robotic fish or the microscopic science that unlocks the genetic code of a spider's silk.

(A large sliding door)

KAPLAN: This is a deep freezer where we keep our biological materials, and it's basically -80 degrees Celsius, approximately 140 degrees Fahrenheit. And --

CURWOOD: David Kaplan stands beside the deep freeze in a science building at Tufts University. He reaches into the wisps of cold vapor and pulls out a tiny plastic bottle. In it, argiope aranchia, a large yellow and black spider, whose silk may hold the key to another kind of natural step for science.

KAPLAN: We try and understand both the protein chemistry and the genetics of spider silk designs and then synthesis and eventually assembly. The silks are very intriguing because of the mechanical properties that they exhibit. Not only are they exceptionally strong, but they're also very flexible, and this is not a combination of mechanical properties that you see with synthetic materials.

CURWOOD: Through microscopes, Dr. Kaplan and his students squint at the images of spiders magnified 100 times, examining the silk that comes out of the abdomens, and then extracting the silk-producing glands in order to clone the genes. The genetic material could someday be inserted into plants via biotechnology. If they can do this, they'll be able to mass-produce a material found today only in a spider's web strong as steel, flexible as chewing gum.

KAPLAN: If we can understand at the molecular level how these kinds of fibers are assembled, then we can learn a lot about how to design better fibers or more unique fibers for the future, so we can make better biomedical implant materials, better scaffolding for tissue engineering, or simply better fibers for high-strength ropes or textiles, rugs, other applications.

CURWOOD: Eventually this research, Dr. Kaplan says, could also have important environmental benefits.

KAPLAN: No longer do we want to just make materials and keep them around. We want to create material life cycles that are more compatible with the natural environment. The fact that you can use a biological system to create these kinds of proteins to make very nice fibers, very strong fibers, is an advantage, because you can use renewable resources as the source of synthesis, and let the biological system, a bacterium, a plant, do the work to create the material. When you're done with the material, it can go back into the environment and be reused, recycled, without any additional new burden created for the environment.

CURWOOD: Like the makers of Robo-Tuna, Dr. Kaplan says he's on the cusp of an emerging movement of scientists who devote their energies to copying nature.

KAPLAN: Material scientists particularly are starting to realize that there is a lot to be learned from biology that can help, and this is a new direction for a lot of scientists where they start to look to biology for new insight, new inspiration.

CURWOOD: Of course, nature has long inspired the designs of man. Centuries ago, Leonardo DaVinci was studying birds for his early designs of flying machines. Author and professor David Noble says perhaps this is a return to a pre-industrial perspective that is more in sympathy with its surroundings. But that in itself, Professor Noble says, holds no great promise.

NOBLE: I mean, people got their poisons from nature. When they had poison darts, where did their poison come from? When people studied and observed nature and found out how certain plants or certain snakes, what have you, had poison that they could use to kill people, and they used it, and they were very sympathetic in their understanding of nature and very, you know, intimate in their observation and mimicking it, okay, is that good?

CURWOOD: The same could be said for the use of petroleum and uranium, both natural substances. The essential question, says Dr. Noble, is what social end is being served?

NOBLE: Good is an ethical notion. Good for what? Good for whom?

CURWOOD: So far, one of the few applied uses of spider silk, for example, has been as the crosshairs of a rifle. But let's consider another real-world example of copying nature, here on this factory floor in central Maine.

(Manufacturing noises)

ANDERSON: Essentially the operation produces no waste. All the waste is recycled into the process.

KING: It's like a closed loop.

ANDERSON: Closed, yes.

CURWOOD: The factory gleams, it's so new. It's the size of a football field, and everywhere you look the long rows of robotic arms spin twine onto spools at high speed.

(Spinning sounds)

CURWOOD: It's the christening of a yarn factory, and the CEO is giving the governor a tour.

KING: Is it fair to say this is the most modern textile facility now today in the world?

ANDERSON: Without a question, yes. Without a question. [Someone echoes: "Without question."] And probably as environmentally, sensitively designed and constructed as anything that you could find anywhere in the world, too.

KING: That's great.

CURWOOD: Ray Anderson, CEO of Atlanta-based Interface Corporation, is taking Maine Governor Angus King through his state-of-the-art textile factory. A few years ago, after reading Paul Hawkens' book The Ecology of Commerce, Mr. Anderson had an epiphany and decided to devote his carpet company with its 5,000 employees and $800 million in annual sales to the vision of sustainability. His company is incorporating the notion of turning bad waste into good product, just as John Todd's living machines. He's working with Hawken and green designer William McDonough. The idea is to become more efficient by mimicking how nature works, cycling and recycling materials, so that waste equals food. It's a kind of industrial metabolism.

ANDERSON: Look around, you don't find a speck of lint or dust in the air. Normally in textile operations you've got a lot of waste generated going to a landfill. Here we've invested in a facility that makes no waste. This -- heat that goes out the stack, it's the ambient heat, and there's product that goes out the back door, and that's -- that's it.

CURWOOD: Reusing your waste, closing the loop, respecting nature. One day, Mr. Anderson wants to drive this factory with solar and wind power. Ray Anderson wants his business to be in keeping with his broader goal of walking more lightly on the earth.

ANDERSON: Our company's on this course to try to get to the top of that mountain we call sustainability.

KING: That's exactly the direction. And it can be done. And you can make a buck at the same time.

ANDERSON: It's a long way to the top, though. (Laughs. Spinning sounds continue.)

Back to top

CURWOOD: Our story on the bioengineers was written and produced by Sandy Tolan and edited by Dan Grossman.

(Spinning sounds continue. Crows caw. Music up and under)

Listener Builds Straw Bale Winery

CURWOOD: In California, if you live near a rice farm, chances are you can expect some smoky days. Once the fields are harvested, the leftover rice straw stalks are often burned to make way for the next year's crop. But this practice is hazardous to people's lungs, and the state is now insisting that farmers reduce the pollution. That means rice farmers must find another way to get rid of all that straw. Here's one solution: make a building out of it. That's right. Frederica Churchill and her husband Claiborne Thompson did just that. They constructed their winery in San Luis Obispo out of rice straw bales. It's the first of its kind commercial building in California. Ms. Churchill joins us now on the phone. Ms. Churchill, could you please describe your straw structure for us?

CHURCHILL: Oh, sure. Well, the building is built in a western barn tradition, so that it has the stucco walls and a very high roof with a very sloping roof. It's about 30 feet tall at either end. It has few right angles -- I mean, they are right angles, but they're not sharp corners. They tend to be more rounded as a result of the straw bales not being exactly perfect, and they sometimes have a slight undulating look in the walls.

CURWOOD: Now, can you tell that it's made out of rice straw?

CHURCHILL: Well, you can tell actually when you're inside the winery and you look into our truth window, which is one area where the stucco has not covered the rice straw bales. And you can see the straw right there.

CURWOOD: Truth window?

CHURCHILL: But -- pardon me?

CURWOOD: Truth window?

CHURCHILL: Yes. A truth window is a common thing that's built into these rice straw buildings, because actually when they are covered with stucco it's very difficult to tell, other than the very sort of soft look that the building has.

CURWOOD: Now, what made you think of building your winery out of straw?

CHURCHILL: Well, rice straw is an incredibly tough material, and therefore a good building block. It's easy to build with rice straw bales without having a lot of building expertise. And so, actually, when we had the barn raising a year ago, we had one day in early November when we had about 35 people, family and friends and other people interested in this type of building, who came and donated their labor. And we put up about half of the walls; that is, they went about halfway up to the ceiling just with people following the instructions of the straw bale contractors who had led this type of workshop before.

CURWOOD: Now, what makes straw good material for a winery?

CHURCHILL: Oh, well a winery needs to have a very stable temperature. The wine itself likes to be in the sort of 55 to 65 degree range, and that is something that everyone wants to achieve. Now, with the rice straw building, which has an insulation value of R55 and which keeps it, in fact, very constant, there's no mechanical air conditioning or anything that's required. And so that's an advantage; over the life of the building there's a savings in operating costs and that kind of thing.

CURWOOD: How much did it cost? I mean, in comparison to regular construction.

CHURCHILL: Well, the architect had sort of calculated for us that it's about $47 per square foot, and the building is about 2,200 square feet. She says that's about $10 less per square foot than a conventional wood-framed building.

CURWOOD: What about all that conditioning we get as children to that, you know, that folk tale about the 3 little pigs and the one that built his house out of straw, man, when the wolf came he was in a lot of trouble.

CHURCHILL: That's true. Well, we've heard a lot of little pig jokes, actually (Laughs) since we built the building. But in fact, straw bale walls, once they are covered with stucco, are more impervious to fire, and that kind of damage, than a traditional building would be.

CURWOOD: Well, thank you very much.

CHURCHILL: Well, thank you, I appreciate your calling.

CURWOOD: Frederica Churchill runs the Claiborne-Churchill Winery in San Luis Obispo, California.

Back to top

CURWOOD: Do you know someone who's done something interesting to improve the environment of their home, their work, their school? Let us know. Call our listener line right now at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988.

(Music up and over: "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?")

CURWOOD: It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And I'll huff, and I'll puff, and I'll blow your house down!

(Music up and under: "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf," continued)

ANNOUNCER: Major funding for Living on Earth comes from the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt -- whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the Great Lakes Protection Fund; 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.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: What does one do about those patches of eroded earth where nothing seems to grow on its own? Plant some seeds, of course, and some folks in New Mexico have found a method that's faster and cheaper than the usual ways. That story'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: Most scientists studying animals are concerned with those they know exist or at least once existed, but one field of study concerns itself with animals that we're not quite so sure about. It's called cryptozoology, and it means the study of hidden animals. Cryptozoologists stalk previously undescribed and, some would say, nonexistent creatures. The list includes new species of lizards, monkeys, and other ordinary critters, but also beasts of mythic proportion like the Loch Ness Monster or the Mokele Embembe, a dinosaur-like being that reportedly lives in a swamp in the Congo. While cryptozoology has a bit of a tarnished reputation in academic circles, its defenders note that much of the Western science of zoology was essentially cryptozoology until scientists in Europe's colonies started sending exotic animals back home. Cryptozoologists also like to point out that the gorilla was considered a mythical beast until the early 19th century, and that the modern coelacanth, a fish presumed to be extinct for millions of years, wasn't found until 1938. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Batter Up: Throwing Seedballs!

CURWOOD: All around us from small patches of erosion along roadsides to broad expanses of overused land, we know places where nothing much seems to grow. A few forlorn weeds, maybe, but most plants, like most people, like company. Seeding these bare spots can be expensive and frustrating as anyone who's tried to start a lawn will tell you. But there is a little-known Japanese technique for habitat restoration that's both cheap and easy. It's called seedballing. Seed balls are small balls of clay encasing soil and seeds. They can be thrown just about anywhere, and when they are watered they give their seedlings a strong start. Folks are trying it now in northern New Mexico, including Native Americans and Federal agencies. Landscape photographer Jim Bones is promoting the seedballs, and as John Burnett reports, Mr. Bones is trying to prove that complex problems need not have complex solutions.

(Children speaking; footfalls)

BURNETT: It's Monday morning, and the delighted fifth graders at the Tesuche Pueblo Elementary School are being told to plunge their hands into a tub of mud. They're learning how to make seedballs from Louis Jina, the pueblo's environmental specialist, and Jim Bones, a photographer turned seedball apostle.

JINA: You want to come over and help open the seed -- maybe we put them all in here first, huh? Or in the bucket? This would be good.

BONES: Just throw the seeds in here, okay? These ones right here on the side. Don't touch these ones.

(Voices and crumpling sounds)

CHILD: Put them in here, the clay?

BONES: No, he's going to put them in here.

BURNETT: The seeds they'll use to make seedballs today are plant species that have disappeared from the over-grazed, eroded, and flood scoured Tesuche Reservation just north of Santa Fe. Jina hopes to return to the land some of the plants that his ancestors used.

(Seeds spill into can)

JINA: Put the seeds in a can, a mixing can. This is what I'm planning on using today. This is common reed. Long time ago, they used these for shafts for their arrows, and so, you know, I want to bring that back. We also use Apache plume, which grows wild out there, but we don't have any of this. So I want to bring it back.

(Children's voices)

BONES: Okay, now as he pours that in, you want to be mixing it around in there. Make sure it doesn't get too wet.

JINA: Mix the mud. Mix the mud. Let's go, let's make it into mud.

BURNETT: The proportions are 1 part water, 1 part soil humus, 3 parts seed mix, and 5 parts powdered red clay. When the sticky brown mixture is ready, the kids pinch it off, roll it into half-inch balls, and toss them onto a plastic sheet.

(Children's voices)

CHILD: I need more mud.

WOMAN: We're going to get some buckets of water. You can wash your hands later.

BURNETT: Inside of an hour, the blue tarp is covered with little red clay orbs the size of Milk Duds. After the seed balls have dried for 24 hours they can be sown. The adobe shell protects them until the rain comes. The clay then melts, as an adobe house dissolves, and the seeds have their own fertile medium in which to germinate. Jim Bones, wiry, intense, effusive, the cuffs of his work shirt stained with red mud, stands by and watches admiringly.

BONES: So how many seedballs would you guess you've made here?

(Children yell out different answers.)

BONES: More than a thousand! I guarantee you, I've counted before. Probably a couple of thousand seedballs here. Did anybody really get tired?


CHILD: Thank you.

BONES: So this is the easiest form of agriculture I know of. Nature does the work, and nature does it best. (Aside: How beautiful...)

BURNETT: Current reseeding techniques leave much room for improvement. Seed drills plant mechanically, but they're expensive implements and must be pulled by tractors. Seeds can be scattered by hand or by airplane, but once they're on the ground they're vulnerable to wind and to predators like harvester ants and kangaroo rats. On the Tesuche Reservation, the traditional method has been to sow seeds on freshly-plowed ground, but this destroys the soil structure and invites weeds. The Tesuche environmental manager, Louis Jina, is trying out seedballs on an eroded patch of the reservation where only juniper and choya cactus seem to thrive now.

JINA: On a farmer aspect of it, it's great. I don't have to use fossil fuels to sit on a tractor and tear up some soils. I don't have to do that. I can go over here, see this grass here, this silos ground, I just get a seedball and I throw it out there. I'm not ripping up Mother Nature. I'm not scarring her, not hurting her, nothing.

(Running water)

BURNETT: The Tesuche Pueblo sits on the vast watershed that drains into the Rio Grande, the great southwestern river that spans 3 states, 2 nations, and 10 centuries of history. Jim Bones sits crosslegged under a thicket of willow beside the river, ruminating on how its watershed has changed in the 35 years he's been photographing it.

BONES: I've seen many of my cherished places, landscapes, living landscapes, so totally altered, even unintentionally. Most of the cases have been degradation, loss of soil, burning. Things that are beyond our control, but within our ability to rehabilitate. And I'm seeing the diversity disappear. I'm seeing the soil erode. I'm seeing huge gashes where there used to be free-flowing streams.

BURNETT: Jim Bones is an accomplished landscape photographer with 7 books to his name, who studied under the Great Depression-era photographer Russell Lee. Two years ago he was commissioned to shoot pictures for a book about the world's authorities on sustainable agriculture. He ended up spending 3 days with an 83-year-old Japanese natural farming master named Masunobo Fukuoka, who taught him about seedballs.

BONES: So much of my training, much of my experience and understanding envisioned from nature, clicked on his idea when he described it. It was so beautifully simple that it could work. It is what a mathematician would call an elegant solution to a very complex problem, and it does all the things you need. It's cheap, it's quick, it's low-maintenance.

BURNETT: But it's also untested. So far, the praise for seedballs comes mainly from anecdotal observation. The Federal Government, as the largest manager of open space in the west, is the biggest potential customer for seedballs, but the government wants to see proof of their effectiveness before experimenting on a large scale. There's certainly interest, though. The New Mexico offices of the US Forest Service, the National Parks Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management, have all asked for more information. Two potential uses: to restore burned areas and to stabilize eroding riverbanks.

(Footfalls over gravel)

BURNETT: A Santa Fe environmental firm called River Way is putting seedballs to their first scientific test in this country. Researchers have scattered 42,000 on an acre of over-grazed high desert just outside of Santa Fe. They set up control plots to compare seedballs with unprotected seeds. Only a few months into the 3-year demonstration, River Way President and biologist Michael Stewart is already excited by what he's finding.

STEWART: Look at these 2! God, that's as big as I've ever seen it, look at that clover! That's like --

MAN: Yeah, now that's going to be here in the spring.

STEWART: Happy clover! God, no kidding. Look at that. Incredible.

BURNETT: The seedballs have produced an unexpected result. Not only do they appear to restore habitat, but they seem to revive a sense of community. A wildlife biologist named Roberta Salazar oversaw a project for the Bureau of Land Management, which included seedballs to restore a riparian zone of the Rio Grande just south of Taos, New Mexico. Traditionally, the government would contract a project like this, or do it in house. Instead, Ms. Salazar joined a group of volunteers, of grandmothers, river guides, science teachers. They spent all day rolling seedballs, which were later tossed on the riverbanks.

SALAZAR: It's a very healthy and healing -- it's just wonderful to be working together. And I know everybody who's worked now on this project, which is a labor-intensive project, it's a hands-on project, has felt very good when they've walked away at the end of the day. And it's important to get people involved in taking care of the land. It's important for people to understand what's happening, and the best way to do that is just to have them out here on the ground.

(Children's voices)

HARRIS: Come on, kids, over here. I only explain this once. We're going to try and reseed this area up here; it's totally bare. Look at this, kids.

BURNETT: Seedballs are also taking root as a teaching tool. Students from the Tesuche Pueblo, from a school in Juarez, Mexico, and now this group from a private academy in Taos, are using seedballs to learn how plants grow and why soil must be protected. These grade schoolers have assembled on the banks of the Rio Grande to scatter the dried seedballs they made earlier. The seedball crew chief is a raft guy named Steve Harris, who, like Jim Bones, has grown beyond his profession and into a committed environmentalist.

HARRIS: Now let's take a double handful here. I'm going to pass the box around. Just reach in there with 2 hands. Scoop them out.

BURNETT: Trying to revegetate a few bald spots by the river is a modest enough project. Masanobu Fukuoka thinks bigger. He thinks seedballs are the next green revolution. He wants to see them dropped by the ton from airplanes to halt the advancement of arid lands around the globe. The seeds would be selected for their suitability to each locality. But first, start small. Win more converts. As Mr. Fukuoka says, make seedballs. Just do it. Don't doubt.

(Clay balls rolling in a box)

HARRIS: This is the sound of a radio correspondent sewing seedballs.

(Clay balls continue to roll, amidst the sounds of children)

BURNETT: This is John Burnett reporting.

HARRIS: Okay, has everybody got their square meter? Not in the river! Not in the river, kids. There you go.

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(Music up and under)

Clearcutting: All In a Day's Work

CURWOOD: Humans were endowed with the powers of reasoning so we can rationalize when we have to, right? And as commentator Robert Leo Heilman points out, the difference between rationalization and denial is a slim one. Mr. Heilman is a former logger who says sometimes you just can't see the clear-cut for the trees.

HEILMAN: When you plant trees for a living it's best not to look at the clear-cut itself. You stay busy with whatever's immediately in front of you because, like all industrial processes, there's beauty in the details and ugliness in the larger view. Oil film on a rain puddle has an iridescent sheen that is lovely in a way that the junkyard it's part of is not. Although tree-planting is part of something called reforestation, clear-cutting is never called deforestation, at least not by its practitioners. The semantics of forestry don't allow that. The mountain slope is a unit, the forest a timber stand. Logging is harvest, and repeated logging, rotation. In the language, and therefore the thinking of industrial silviculture, a clear-cut is a forest. The system does not recognize any depletion at all. The company is fond of talking about trees as a renewable resource, and the official line is that clear-cutting, followed by reforestation, results in a net gain. But ask if they're willing to trade company-owned old growth forest for a clear-cut of the same acreage, and the answer is always, "No, of course not." So you keep hustling along, trying not to think, planting a new seedling every 8 feet, every 40 seconds, 700 times a day.

You tell yourself that it's the company that treats the land shabbily. You see your work as a frenzied life-giving dance in the ashes of a plundered world. You think of the future and the green legacy you leave behind you. But you know that your work also makes the plunder seem rational, and is at its core just another part of the destruction.

More than the physical exhaustion, this effort not to see the world tires you. It takes a lot of effort not to notice, not to care. When the world around you is painful and ugly that pain and ugliness seeps into you, no matter how hard you try to keep it out. It builds up like a slowly accumulating poison. Sometimes the poison turns to venom and you strike out as quick as any rattlesnake, but without the honest rattler's fair, humane warning. So you bitch and bicker with the guys on the crew, argue with the foreman and snap at your wife and kids. You do violent work in a world where the evidence of violence is all around you. You see it in the scorched earth, in the muddy streams. You feel it when you step out from the living forest into the barren clear-cut. It rings in your ears with the clink of steel on rock. It jars your arm with every new seedling.

CURWOOD: Robert Leo Heilman is a writer and a former logger. His collection of essays, Over Story Zero: Real Life in Timber Country, has just been released in paperback by Sasquatch Books. He comes to us from KLCC in Eugene, Oregon.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Healthy meals need healthy preparation if we're to stay healthy. Cookware that's good for you and your food, coming up on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Where Food Comes From

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Let's face it, there are now a lot of kids who seem to be congenitally allergic to fresh fruits and vegetables. They're the ones who would agree with the attempt some years ago by the US Agriculture Department to declare ketchup as a vegetable. These youngsters see pizza as one essential food group and French fries as the other. I should know. A couple of them live at my house. Many school lunch rooms seem to have given into this trend. They would never dare serve children fresh broccoli or a peach that hadn't spent most of its time on the planet smothered in syrup inside a can. There are exceptions, of course, and reporter Tom Verde is going to take us on a visit to an intriguing one in downtown Hartford, Connecticut. As part of a farm to school education project, a group is linking local growers with public school cafeteria suppliers, and in the process the kids are learning more about the value of good nutrition.

(Children's voices)

VERDE: It's lunch hour at the Quirk Middle School in downtown Hartford, one of 3 public schools participating in the farm to school pilot program. Franks and beans and tuna fish grinders are on the menu today, together with a couple of new items this year: fresh pears and apples from a local orchard.

(Voices continue)

VERDE: The produce has been a hit, say cafeteria workers. Quirk and other public schools in the program now go through 30 cases of fresh fruit each week. But for every apple or pear consumed, there are still plenty of corn chips and candy bars in the diets of many public school kids. According to recent USDA surveys, 35% of the children enrolled in the national school lunch program don't eat any fruit, while 25% never touch a vegetable.

REALE: What they need to learn is that there are choices other than what Madison Avenue is feeding them commercially on TV.

VERDE: Fran Reale is a local chef who volunteers at Quirk Middle School as part of the farm to school program.

REALE: And they think they have to have the Fruit Loops, they have to have the Lucky Charms, they have to have this. And they are children, so they don't really have a position from which to judge that information.

VERDE: But if kids were given the opportunity to learn more about where fruits and vegetables come from, says farm to school project director Elizabeth Wheeler, they may be more eager to give them a try.

WHEELER: They need that exposure, so that they understand that their well-being, environmental well-being depends on taking care of the land and taking care of it responsibly. And so food is a -- is a medium for getting that message across.

KELLIHER: [on megaphone] So let's take an apple today, you want to lift the apple up. Put some pressure on the stem by lifting the apple up and that breaks the apple away from the tree without hurting the tree or hurting the apple.

VERDE: Megaphone in hand, farmer Brian Kelliher guides a group of boisterous seventh and eighth graders from Quirk Middle School through his family's farm in rural Enfield, Connecticut. Here, they pick apples and pumpkins and see firsthand where the food in their cafeteria comes from. The farm to school project encourages such field trips, and helps teachers from various disciplines bring lessons learned on the farm back into the classroom. Science teacher Doug Renfrew.

RENFREW: We're studying about things like how soil like this is laid down through erosional processes and sedimentation. And then how that soil is then used by the farmer, perhaps tens of thousands of years later.

FARMER: [Calling to kids] This is purple cabbage. And this is cabbage, and then those peppers, right there, and those over there is apples, and those over there is --

CHILD: Hot peppers.

FARMER: Very good! Yes...

VERDE: From farmer's field to downtown Hartford's farmer's market, the lesson continues as kids identify and buy produce, picking up a little math while they're at it.

CHILDREN: We're trying to figure out --

CHILD: The pounds!

CHILD: Yeah.

CHILD: The weight, the ounces, the bushels, the kilograms and --

CHILD: And all the things that we see.

CHILD: Yeah. And the tons.

VERDE: In addition to helping kids learn more about agriculture and nutrition, the farm to school project is also trying to help local farmers like Harold Tevras of South Glastonbury sell their produce to the schools. A market which Tevras says can be unpredictable.

TEVRAS: Well I tell you, what I tried a couple times and it didn't, it just didn't work. I would package stuff and I was all set for them, and they'd call and they'd order an order. The next thing, the next day they'd call back and they'd cancel it because they had enough on hand, and then they would order 1 or 2 boxes. And for me to come out of Glastonbury to deliver 2 boxes just wasn't worth it, you know, wasn't worth it for me.

VERDE: Recognizing there was a problem, Hartford Food System addressed the issue by inserting a distributor this growing season between the farmers and the schools. Yet from the school system's point of view, the bottom line remains a hurdle. Jeff Sidewater is the assistant director of food services for the Hartford public schools.

SIDEWATER: There are some additional costs involved in the program. If, for example, we're doing an acorn squash, we have to slice the acorn squash, we have to dig out the seeds from that. It could cost us a little bit more in labor.

VERDE: Sidewater says the state has also compared prices and found that foods shipped in from California or Florida is usually less expensive than locally grown produce. Still, he adds, there are times of year when certain local crops are cheaper.

SIDEWATER: Things such as fresh apples and pears when they're in season, and some of the fresh vegetables, tomatoes, some of the lettuces, cucumbers, carrots, are competitive with what we could get from a shipped in source.

VERDE: Sidewater says the state is studying the cost effectiveness of the pilot program, which may or may not become part of the public school curriculum. The Hartford Food System's Elizabeth Wheeler hopes that the Department of Education will take more than just dollars and cents into account when making its decision.

WHEELER: We'd like this to be institutionalized. In other words, the food education become part of the education of every child in the school system, so that they can make their own choices about fresh produce and they can appreciate it and understand the, you know, the nutritional value, the effect of their purchasing, of their consumption on the greater community.

(Children's voices)

VERDE: But while the state weighs the economics of the program, food service managers like Gonzalo Rodriguez of Quirk Middle School report that the kids appear to actually be learning something about the food they eat.

RODRIGUEZ: Now, since we have these programs, we just don't show them the items but we have some, a little education about and how good the nutritional value. And I start seeing some of the kid s that come and know the difference between the items that we are serving them.

VERDE: Still, some items, such as the dreaded broccoli, remain a tough sell, says Rodriguez. That is, until a local chef who came in to help as part of the program suggested using the vegetable on pizza. The result: a parent's dream. Kids lined up for seconds. For Living on Earth, I'm Tom Verde.

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(Children's voices up and under)

Sensible Cookware

CURWOOD: No matter how healthy or wonderful the food, it doesn't matter if we don't prepare it safely. And with the holidays upon us, there's lots of eating and cooking going on. Debra Lynn Dadd is author of The Non-Toxic Home and Office and she joins us now from KQED in San Francisco. Debra, why should we be concerned about what we cook with?

DADD: Because our cookware contains potentially harmful substances that can range from the metals that the cookware is used to make the cookware to the finishes used that are non-stick. Now, people shouldn't be concerned about if they just use a cookware product once and cook in it, that you're not going to immediately get sick from that. But it's the day-in and day-out use of these cookwares that give you a long-term exposure that over time can cause illness.

CURWOOD: So what specifically should we look out for?

DADD: Well, the first thing to look for is non-stick finishes. Those are made of plastics. They can chip off into your food, especially if you're using metal utensils. So if you want to use non-stick finishes, the best thing to do is to use plastic or preferably wooden utensils with them. And the second danger from it is that when the plastic is heated it can create fumes which some people might be sensitive to, and there have been some incidences reported of illness from the heating up of these pans.

CURWOOD: And what about metals?

DADD: The metal to watch out for, there's actually two. It used to be that most of the cookware was made from aluminum, and aluminum has been shown in many studies to cause many mental disorders that range from behavior abnormalities to visual motor coordination. So because of these studies, most companies don't sell aluminum cookware any more, but it's still widely in circulation. Like if you were to buy an old pot at a flea market or something, it's likely to be aluminum. The other thing to watch out for unfortunately is stainless steel. We used to think that stainless steel was fine, but new studies have shown stainless steel does give off nickel, and especially if it's scratched by using a metal utensil or an abrasive cleaning pad, that it can release more nickel, and that's also a toxic chemical. In fact, it's carcinogenic. So, what you want to do, if you've got stainless steel, is again, use wooden utensils and a non-abrasive cleaner, and start moving toward safer alternatives.

CURWOOD: Now, what are the safest alternatives?

DADD: Well, the safest things to cook in are clay, cast-iron, or porcelain-coated cast-iron. Glass like Pyrex glass. You can also cook in carbon steel pots and pans.

CURWOOD: What do you cook on?

DADD : Well, I still cook on stainless steel because --


DADD: Before I found out about this (laughs). This study only just came out in 1993, after I had purchased a whole set of gourmet stainless steel --


DADD: -- pots and pans. So I'm just real careful with them, and as I can afford it I'm replacing them one by one.

CURWOOD: One piece at a time. So we don't have to rush out and do this all at once; we'll be fine.

DADD: No, you don't. It's just like, with most toxic things in your home, be aware of where the dangers are and when it's time for you to go make a purchase, purchase the safest thing possible.

CURWOOD: Thank you so much for taking this time with us.

DADD: You're welcome.

CURWOOD: Debra Lynn Dadd lives in San Francisco. Her book is called The Non-Toxic Home and Office, and next June she'll have out a book called The Home Safe Home.

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(Music up and under: "Hey good lookin'/Whatcha got cookin'?/How about cookin' somethin' up with me?")

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. Our engineers are Frank DeAngelis at WBUR, Jeff Martini at Harvard, and Antonio Oleart and Jane Pipik at WGBH. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Living on Earth is made possible with major funding provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt -- whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the W. Alton Jones Foundation; 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.

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