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

May 23, 1997

Air Date: May 23, 1997



At grocery stores around the country, produce appears to be fairly uniform in its offerings. While many consumers find this homogeny reassuring, some scientists and nutritionists worry that this lack of variety is impacting our ability to deal with genetic changes in the future. Richard Schiffman reports from New York City on how we got where we are today. (12:25)

Swain Recycles

Steve Curwood talks to PBS’ Victory Garden television program host Roger Swain about why he recycles everything in his compost heap. (08:00)

The Living On Earth Alamanc

Facts about... An 800 mile trek along the TransAlaskan oil pipeline. (01:15)

East of Eden

In the past decade, more than one hundred nursing homes have brought more life and nature in to their aging residents. Dr. William Thomas is the author of "Life Worth Living: How Someone You Love Can Still Enjoy Life in a Nursing Home - The Eden Alternative: " and he is a leader in the movement to reinvent nursing homes. Steve Curwood talks with Dr. Thomas about some of the healing successes this ecological approach has brought. (10:35)

Come Live With Me? / Dan Grossman

Reporter Dan Grossman thought he might like to live in an affordable housing community and set out to explore the world of "co-housing." Co-Housing is a blend of 1960's commune-living idealism with 1990's condo realism. Built in to this process from the start is the idea of agreed sharing in a planned community of neighbors. What did Dan decide? (04:00)


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)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Sharon Brody
REPORTERS: Andrea DeLeon, Robin Finesmith, Jason Paur, Richard Schiffman,
Dan Grossman, John Burnett
GUESTS: Roger Swain, William Thomas

(Theme music intro)

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

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
Have you taken a look around your supermarket aisles lately? There seems to be more and more to choose from, but there is concern that the apparent variety in our food supply is a dangerous illusion.

GUSSOW: What we really have available is 20,000 to 30,000 items in the supermarket based on a very, very narrow genetic base.

CURWOOD: And if you'd rather grow your own, today we have some advice on how to nourish your vegetables naturally, using those tiny but hardworking creatures that already live in your garden.

SWAIN: They're moving nutrients around. They are feeding plants. They're breaking down organic matter. You know, we understand pitifully little about how this works, but it's fancy stuff.

CURWOOD: We'll have those stories and more this week on Living on Earth, but first this news.

Environmental News

BRODY: From Living on Earth, I'm Sharon Brody.
The use of nitrogen fertilizer and the burning of fossil fuels have doubled the rate at which nitrogen can be taken up by living things. That's according to a panel of ecologists who will publish their findings in the August issue of the journal Ecological Applications. While plants and animals need some nitrogen to live, too much of it causes certain plants to proliferate, driving out other species. Nitrogen compounds also deplete the ozone layer and contribute to smog, acid rain, and the greenhouse effect. The researchers say more efficient fertilization and stricter controls on fossil fuel emissions are needed to help mitigate the effects.

A new proposal from the Environmental Protection Agency to make the nation's paper mills reduce their production of dioxin is getting a warm reception from industry. But environmentalists say the plan doesn't go far enough. Maine Public Radio's Andrea DeLeon reports.

DeLEON: The Agency is expected to back a paper industry proposal that would require mills to stop using pure chlorine to bleach their paper and use chlorine dioxide instead. EPA says the change will reduce dioxin and furan pollution from the mills. But environmentalists say the Agency has chosen the least effective method of eliminating the pollution. They hope the Agency would force the paper industry to give up chlorine altogether, since the chemical is to blame for the production of dioxins and related compounds in paper mill wastewater. Dioxin is a possible carcinogen that's been linked to hormone disruptions. Many environmentalists say no amount of dioxin discharge can be considered safe. For Living on Earth, I'm Andrea DeLeon in Portland, Maine.

BRODY: The Environmental Protection Agency has upheld an order to shut down the firing range at a Massachusetts National Guard training base because pollutants from spent artillery shells may be contaminating the area's drinking water. Camp Edwards sits atop Cape Cod's sole aquifer, and recently traces of toxic pollutants, thought to come from military activities, were found in the groundwater. Critics of the decision worry the case will be used by community groups nationwide wanting similar restrictions placed on military bases in their neighborhoods.

Wildlife officers in Ohio and West Virginia are on the lookout for poachers who have been taking millions of pounds of freshwater mussels from the state's river beds each year. From WCPN in Cleveland, Robin Finesmith reports.

FINESMITH: Most of the mussels are being shipped to Asia, especially Japan, where they're used in the $3 billion a year cultured pearl industry. According to officials with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, selling the mussels can be more profitable than drugs, and the penalties less severe. They say a determined poacher can make $30,000 in just a few days, by raiding state-protected mollusk beds along the Ohio River. A new law in Ohio bans the taking or selling of mussels, but they can be harvested in neighboring Kentucky, and Ohio officials worry their efforts won't be successful unless a regional anti-poaching plan is developed. Certain types of mussels are protected by the state of Ohio as endangered species. Chemical spills, stream impoundment, and over-harvesting by the button industry have already depleted the mussel populations. And while officials say poaching is coming under control, those species could become seriously threatened if the problem continues. For Living on Earth, I'm Robin Finesmith in Cleveland.

BRODY: A 30-year-old pesticide dump found near the Columbia River in southeast Washington is being investigated by the Environmental Protection Agency to assess its potential hazard to fish and wildlife. From KUOW in Seattle, Jason Paur reports.

PAUR: The site is located along the last free-flowing stretch of the lower Columbia River known as the Hanford Reach. The river's last healthy wild salmon run spawns here, and it is habitat for several species of migratory birds. The dump site was uncovered by the EPA after a tip from a hunter. Two weathered white signs mark the area, according to EPA spokesman Bob Jacobson.

JACOBSON: There are signs posted by the people who put it there, saying 2,4-D Dump Site, 1966. 2-4D is an herbicide that can cause serious environmental harm.

PAUR: Samples have been taken by the EPA to confirm what contaminants are present and their potential hazard to their surroundings. The area was given a clean bill of health 3 years ago by the Army Corps of Engineers despite the signs marking the dump. But if tests confirm the contamination, the site will be cleaned up. For Living on Earth, I'm Jason Paur in Seattle.

BRODY: Researchers at Washington State University are resurrecting old abandoned strains of perennial wheat to help fight soil erosion. Earlier this century, scientists had developed wheat varieties that regrow each year. The research was abandoned because perennials yielded too little wheat. Now, concern over soil erosion has driven the Washington State researchers back into the lab. They say farmers with highly erodable soil will be willing to plant wheat with a lower yield. Perennials help prevent erosion because their roots hold soil in place longer than the roots of varieties that need to be reseeded each year. The researchers expect to offer perennial wheat to farmers within the next three years.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Sharon Brody.

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood and this is an encore edition of Living on Earth.
The modern American supermarket is a vast cornucopia of fresh and processed foods from around the world placed within arm's reach, at prices most of us here can afford. We truly do live in a land of plenty, but this plenitude has also brought hidden problems, and some students of the food supply have begun to worry whether our current abundance has come at too high a cost to the environment and society.
From New York City, Richard Schiffman has our report.

(Loudspeaker in supermarket: "There's chicken cutlets on sale today, $1.99 a pound...")

SCHIFFMAN: If you're like me, you've walked down the aisles of your local supermarket countless times, and you've undoubtedly been amazed by what you've seen there in the overflowing bins and shelves.

DINOFIO: This time of year most are greens, string beans, collard greens. All greens come mostly from Florida. Also we have some vegetables coming from California, like broccoli, all types of lettuces. We have asparagus out of Chile.

SCHIFFMAN: Supermarket produce managers like Angelo Dinofio order their fruits and vegetables from every state in the Union and from nearly every country on earth. The supermarket shelves are stocked to overflowing with an incredible array of food products. But some critics suggest that this diversity is more apparent than it is real.

GUSSOW: What we really have available is 20,000 to 30,000 items in the supermarket based on a very, very narrow genetic base.

SCHIFFMAN: Joan Gussow is Professor Emeritus in Nutrition at Columbia University. She says that most of what's available at the supermarket comes from a surprisingly small number of food crops.

GUSSOW: We have 3 or 4 varieties of potatoes that are grown in the United States, and we have hundreds of varieties of French fries. That's really what we've come to. Our variety is in the innovation of the mind of the food technologist, not authentic variety.

SCHIFFMAN: In fact, most farmers are growing fewer varieties of fruits and vegetables today than they were in the past, and critics say that fewer varieties means less genetic diversity. And they claim that less genetic diversity means a food supply that's more vulnerable, especially to disease.

(Supermarket checkout counter, electronic sounds)

SCHIFFMAN: So how did it happen that our supermarkets came to stock so many products based on such a small number of crops? The reasons are complex and they involve the ways that food gets grown, shipped, and marketed.

(A tractor motor)

SCHIFFMAN: First amongst these, according to Joan Gussow, is the growth in petroleum-based agriculture.

GUSSOW: The way in which we grow food in this country has been very, very much based on the availability of cheap energy. And so we have substituted for nature's gifts, which are to control most insect pests, to recycle minerals, to recycle nutrients, to recycle water. But we have substituted inputs based on petroleum for that. We have substituted herbicides, pesticides. We've substituted tractors. We pump water with petroleum.

(Tractor motor continues)

SCHIFFMAN: The use of oil and petrochemicals has revolutionized the way that we grow food in this country. For one thing, it's allowed for an exponential increase in the size of farms. In a matter of decades we've moved from a network of small farms typically growing lots of different things to an agriculture dominated by huge factory farms growing perhaps only one crop. Five hundred or 1,000 acres planted in, say, green beans or iceberg lettuce, and all of it tended and harvested by machines. And then there are also advances in transportation technology.

(Trucks on a highway)

SCHIFFMAN: Nothing has changed the way food gets marketed in America quite so much as the introduction of huge refrigerated trucks. It used to be that farmers had to get their produce to the market fast, before it spoiled, but that's no longer the case.

COHEN: A hundred years ago we did not have the advantage of good quality refrigeration. So a product grew every day, it had to be sold every day, it had to be consumed every day.

SCHIFFMAN: Ira Cohen is a food wholesaler in New York City.

COHEN: Now, with the new techniques and the new seeds and new farming methods that have been developed with our growers, we have access to product that will have a much longer shelf life. So we can afford, now to bring product from other parts of the world and other parts of the country in order to satisfy the need.

SCHIFFMAN: The result has been that the market for food products, which was once regional, has become global. Every farmer in the world is now in effect competing with every other farmer for space on distant supermarket shelves. Paul Raeburn is the science editor of the Associated Press and the author of The Last Harvest, a book on the dangers of the shrinking genetic base for American agriculture. Raeburn says only those varieties which can stand up to the rigors of modern harvesting and transport are grown today.

RAEBURN: Crops grown on that large scale have to be designed for several things that we don't always think about. They have to be grown so that all plants mature at the same time. If they're going to be mechanically harvested, the harvester has to be able to go down the rows and grab everything. They have to have certain characteristics spread into them to make them shippable. They have to last for a considerable period of time after they're harvested, remain fresh and sellable.

SCHIFFMAN: Another factor which limits what gets grown in America is the demand of a few large customers. Huge corporate buyers have a tremendous influence over the food market. The type of pea that Birds Eye likes or the potato that McDonald's uses for its French fries quickly becomes the industry standard. The large supermarket chains also have a lot to say about what gets grown. Ira Cohen says that the supermarkets are looking for produce which has a long shelf life and flawless appearance.

COHEN: Everybody, whether you're buying produce or you're buying an automobile or a pair of shoes, what looks good to you is what you will buy first. When it comes to food it's even more important.

(Voices yelling, packages being moved.)

SCHIFFMAN: If the worldwide trade in fruits and vegetables has a nerve center, it's the Hunts Point Market in the South Bronx. Huge refrigerated trucks roll into the nation's largest wholesale market at all hours of the day and night. They deliver their pallet loads of fruits and vegetables on the over one mile of unloading docks.

GORDON: We feed 22 million metropolitan New Yorkers out of this market.

SCHIFFMAN: Myra Gordon is the administrative director of the Hunts Point Market.

GORDON: We ship our products as far north as Maine, as far south as Florida, as far west as Chicago, and we ship into Western Europe and the Caribbean basin every day.

SCHIFFMAN: Gordon says that the supermarkets sell us just what we ask for. She asserts that we Americans have become accustomed to getting what we want when we want it.

GORDON: People are very spoiled. They want corn 12 months a year; they want tomatoes 12 months a year; they want stone fruit 12 months a year. Traditionally those items had seasons, and they were only available during a given season. Now there's always some place in the world growing something that comes in here.

SCHIFFMAN: Gordon thinks that it's a system that works for consumers. She says that the high volume sales and global reach of today's supermarket have been a tremendous benefit. And she and others are puzzled that people would criticize it.

GORDON: We are living longer, healthier lives, more productive lives, primarily because we are all eating better and we are all eating more fresh fruits and vegetables.

COHEN: Here in the United States we don't have people starving because there isn't enough food available.

SCHIFFMAN: Ira Cohen runs his wholesale company out of the Hunts Point Market.

COHEN: I have a very, very limited amount of respect for people that have anything to say negative about agriculture in the United States. I feel very privileged that I live in a country that has the ability to produce this type of produce, this variety, this quality, and allows us all to eat better than people have in time immemorial.

SCHIFFMAN: Americans do enjoy the most bountiful and cheapest food supply in the world. We spend on average only 12% of our incomes on food. Europeans pay over twice that much. But the question for many critics, like Joan Gussow, is whether all of this can last.

GUSSOW: Because of the way we grow, because of our carelessness at maintaining genetic resources, because of the concentration of power over food and how narrow the base has become of what companies will buy, this sort of abundance that we have in the supermarket is kind of very perilous.

SCHIFFMAN: In particular, author Paul Raeburn worries that by growing vast tracts of genetically identical crops, we are becoming more vulnerable to diseases, like the potato blight which decimated Ireland in the 1840s, and which has just recently reappeared, this time on North American shores.

RAEBURN: In Maine last year, in 1994, farmers lost about 30% of their crop. Maine potatoes are one of the mainstays of that state's economy. New York lost about half of its crop. And the blight is back this year and likely to be worse.

SCHIFFMAN: Raeburn says that infestations like the potato blight don't have to be devastating so long as we maintain a healthy diversity of crop varieties and cultivation.

RAEBURN: If you plant all one variety and a pest or disease comes along that can attack that one, you're wiped out. If you have a variety of different corn types growing in your fields, and a pest or a disease comes along as they always do, it's likely to attack one or two or three of the varieties but not all of them.

SCHIFFMAN: When a new pest shows up, Raeburn says it's essential that plant breeders have a large stock of different seeds with which to develop resistant strains. But he claims that these priceless genetic reserves are being lost. Raeburn cites as an example the woefully underfunded seed bank run by the US Department of Agriculture. Instead of being replanted, the seeds are dying on the shelves, and our capacity to protect our food supply against crop blights is diminishing with them. Others hold that since small farms are reservoirs of genetic diversity, keeping them in business is crucial. If the supermarkets stocked more regional fruits and vegetables in season, they say, there would be an even greater variety of produce for all of us to enjoy. And as apple grower Elizabeth Ryan reminds us, variety is, after all, the spice of life.

RYAN: It's the same reason why we don't want to have one kind of people in the world. I mean, 50 kinds of apples, I have apples that are sweet, I have apples that are tart, I have apples that are sweet-tart, I have apples that are as hard as a rock, they're like a piece of wood almost, and I have apples that just melt in your mouth. In our case, our customers love that we have all these different varieties. And the more varieties we have for them, the happier they are.

SCHIFFMAN: The growing popularity of farm stands, farmer's markets, and specialty food stores, does seem to indicate that consumers want more variety than is usually offered to them. Elizabeth Ryan believes that the supermarkets and growers alike are beginning to get the message, too. And that's a hopeful sign, she says, that more of America's agricultural diversity can be preserved. For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Schiffman in New York.

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CURWOOD: A stroll through the Victory Garden with Roger Swain is just ahead on Living on Earth.

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Swain Recycles

CURWOOD: Hi, Roger.

SWAIN: Good morning. How are you?

CURWOOD: Oh, on a day like today when spring planting's already well underway and the birds are singing, how can I be anything but great?

SWAIN: Kind of makes you wish you could photosynthesize, doesn't it?

CURWOOD: But since he can't, master gardener Roger Swain tends to the photosynthesis of others. He's science editor of Horticulture Magazine, as well as host of the PBS television show Victory Garden. And Swain has a new book entitled Groundwork, in which he lays out some practical and philosophical rules for gardeners.


CURWOOD: We join Roger Swain on a sunny morning on the set of the Victory Garden. It's tucked away behind a private home in the suburbs of Boston, and it does resemble something that you might find in Hollywood: something picture perfect. There is a lush, green, perfectly manicured lawn. The grass is broken up by bright-colored tulips and flowering bushes. In the garden itself, the dominant color is not green, at least not yet, but Swain has big plans for the coming summer months.

SWAIN: We've got rhubarb, we've got asparagus, we've pulled up the parsnips. But it just gets better and better and I, I came to gardening as a big, happy eater. So a far as I'm concerned, you know, it's crop after crop and we finish up coming into the fruits in midsummer and the apples and plums and blueberries and that's my idea of hog heaven.

CURWOOD: Through the pearly, or rather wooden gates of hog heaven, you can see the plants are just beginning their climb skyward. Bright green shoots poke from above mounds of chocolate brown soil.

I'm looking around here, Roger. I see that most of your beds are raised. They're up a bit from the ground. Now why is that?

SWAIN: Well you know, the raised bed, Steve, has been around for quite a while. And because it's higher up, it's ready to work earlier. It warms up faster. The water drains out in the spring. but I, I don't think that's the real reason that we use the term raised beds, or rather I think when we use the word raised we should refer to it in the context of a sort of raised in importance, rather than raised in topography. The one thing you're forbidden to do in this garden, Steve, is to ever step on this bed. Because when you step on soil, you compact it. You press it down. And what that does it is it prevents moisture and air and nutrients from getting into it. It really, you know, as we like to say, ecologists like to say that the earth can barely bear the weight of the human foot. Well that's certainly true with these beds.


SWAIN: We never ever step on them.

CURWOOD: This is really rich, dark soil. What —

SWAIN: People tease us on the television show and they say, we've seen you jam your hand down in a foot into the soil without a trowel, and you can see I'm doing it right here, just excavating a hole very easily. There's nothing down there but loose, soft soil. And the secret, as I say, the secret, in addition to never stepping on the soil and never compacting it, is lots and lots of organic matter.


SWAIN: Fifty percent of the material here is air space, and the other fifty percent is a mixture of minerals and organic matter. Now the organic matter doesn't make up very many percent, maybe four or five percent. But it's that four or five percent that is extremely important.


SWAIN: Because it is that four or five percent of organic matter, humus, that is feeding a wonderful community of microorganisms. You've got about 5 billion bacteria in a teaspoon.


SWAIN: You've got about 20 million fometus fungi. And another million or so protozoa in a single teaspoon.

CURWOOD: Okay. That's quite a crowd.

SWAIN: That's more than we have people on earth by a long, long way. And what those organisms are doing is some very fancy stuff. They're moving nutrients around. They are feeding plants, they're breaking down organic matter. We understand pitifully little about how all this works. But it's fancy stuff.

CURWOOD: What can I do at home as a gardener to have this kind of complexity, this richness, in where I grow my tomatoes?

SWAIN: Well you know, every fall, people are cheerfully raking up leaves in their yard, putting them in big plastic bags and putting those big plastic bags out on the curb. And those same people, come spring they go down to the garden center, what are they buying? Great big plastic bags full of peat moss. You've got great big plastic bags full of organic matter going in opposite directions on the road, passing it. If they'd save all their leaves, if they'd save all their organic matter, there's no such thing as yard waste, Steve.


SWAIN: Let me show you the compost heap over here, and I can show you what's in it.

CURWOOD: What have you got here?

SWAIN: Well we've got a pile of organic matter here that's about 4 foot square, and by the time we're done it will be 4 feet deep. And you can see the cutoff rhubarb leaves and some lily foliage, and some of the cleaning up off the perennial bed. And there's a little bit of everything mixed in there.

CURWOOD: I was reading your book Groundwork, and you said there was a scavenger or a pest who wound up dead in your garden?

SWAIN: Well that was, the question is, the question is, what does one do with dead woodchucks? And I add them to my compost heap. Now I got a letter from a woman who said, "You have so little respect for life that you would put a woodchuck in your compost heap." I said, "Madam, I have so much respect for life that I would put a woodchuck in my compost heap." (Laughter) I want the ingredients of the woodchuck to get back into the ecosystem as soon as possible. So I laid it out with full military honors.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Okay, now for anyone who's listening to us chat, who's thinking about what they can do, here it is the end of May, go out to their garden and get the soil ready. What are some tips that you give them?

SWAIN: Well you know, the beginning of the year is sort of the beginning of the organic production season. So you may be hard-pressed to find organic matter in the short run, and I give you a special dispensation to go out and buy peat moss this spring, because that's certainly a fine organic amendment. Any deposit, any deposit of decayed leaves, you just ask around the neighborhood. People say to you, what's the best source of organic matter? I say the one that's cheapest and the one that's closest to your garden.

CURWOOD: Now you do use chemicals sometimes, you said.

SWAIN: We do. We do. We use chemical fertilizers, highly soluble fertilizers, sometimes. When we transplant in the spring in cold soils, we use transplant solution, which is high in phosphorous. We use Rotonone occasionally for aphids that get on fava beans. We first try to rub them off, and spray them off with water. If that doesn't work we throw a little Rotonone on. But generally, you only turn to a chemical solution when all of your other techniques have failed.

CURWOOD: Now what is it that got you to this point of view? You know, in writing your book Groundwork you talk about the fact that you were farming in New Hampshire on the land using plenty of chemicals. what changed your mind?

SWAIN: When I started gardening, I was using a 1944 Victory Garden manual put out by a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and he was using, you know, slash slash synthetic, pour it on everything!

CURWOOD: Okay. What happened to your land when you did that?

SWAIN: Things grew like mad. Things were bright green, very very green.

CURWOOD: So why not do it?

SWAIN: The problem was, as everybody discovers, is that for the first few years things are tremendous. And then things go on growing. But as you work the soil, you had your hands in the soil over here, I can assure you that if you had stuck your hands in the soil that I was gardening in 10 years out where I'd applied nothing to that soil but additional soluble nutrients, I'd had a very different feeling. And what was happening was the organic matter was disappearing, and if you lose your organic matter the soil gets cloddier and cloddier. Now that's not a very technical term, cloddy, but you know what I mean. It wads up in great big brick-like clumps. And as it began to get gooier and gooier and gummier and gummier and harder and harder to work, you know a little light bulb went off in my head. And I said, you know, you bozo, you know what you've been doing? You have been neglecting the organic matter. So. I think gardeners grow as surely and as certainly as the plants they tend.

CURWOOD: Thank you very much.

SWAIN: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Roger Swain hosts PBS Victory Garden and his new book is called Groundwork.

(Footfalls and birdsong)

SWAIN: Take a look at this spinach, Steve. This is a neat story, because this spinach wasn't planted this spring. This spinach was planted last fall. Now they've come on strong. And you just take a taste of that and you'll find that's the nicest spinach salad you've ever had.

CURWOOD: Mmm. Mmmm.

SWAIN: Pretty good. Doesn't need any dressing.

CURWOOD: Not at all. You can eat it right off the plant. No spray.

SWAIN: No spray, no nothin'. That is clean spinach.

CURWOOD: That's the best spinach I've had. Thank you.

SWAIN: You're welcome.

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CURWOOD: We're always interested in what you have to say about our program. Call our listener line any time at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Or write us at 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02138. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. And check out our web page at www.loe.org. Transcripts and tapes are $12.

You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for reporting on science in the environment; the Ford Foundation; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; and Stonyfield Farm, makers of pure all-natural organic yogurts and ice cream. 1-800-PRO-COWS for Stonyfield's Moosletter.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: What if nursing homes treated aging as a natural process, instead of as a disease that can't be cured? And what if nursing homes were habitats that celebrated all kinds of life? Some nursing homes are doing just that and with startling results. That story is next right here on Living on Earth.

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

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The Living On Earth Alamanc

CURWOOD: From the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Alaska, this pipeline is made for you and me. At least that's how science writer Ned Rozell sees it. Mr. Rozell and his dog Jane are on a 4-month trek along the Trans-Alaskan Oil Pipeline. On May 4th, man and dog left Valdez on Alaska's southern coast, expecting to reach Prudhoe Bay 800 miles due north in early September. During that time they will cross 3 mountain ranges and 800 rivers and streams. Mr. Rozell is commemorating the 20th anniversary of the pipeline's construction. A quite ingenious design, actually. A steel tube, 4 feet in diameter and insulated with fiberglass, the pipeline zigzags through most of its route. This helps reduce the effects of expansion and contraction caused by changing temperatures. And where the pipeline crosses major fault lines, it rests on sliding rails built to move when the earth does. During his trip Ned Rozell plans to keep up his weekly science columns. But one thing he won't keep up with is the oil. Traveling at an average of 6 miles an hour, the oil makes the journey across Alaska in just 5 and a half days. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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East of Eden

CURWOOD: For most of us, the mere thought of a nursing home draws a shiver. Most of the more than 2 million residents of America's nursing homes are stuck in sterile places with little stimulation, and where the only living creatures are medical staff and other elderly people in poor health. To cut down on restlessness and complaints, many residents are drugged. But it doesn't have to be that way. Outside of nursing homes in the natural world, humans are surrounded by all kinds of life: plants, birds, mammals and people of different ages. So why not, thought Dr. William Thomas, create an inviting human habitat for our ailing seniors? Dr. Thomas ran the Chase Memorial Nursing Home in New Berlin, New York. In 1991 he started bringing birds, dogs, cats, plants and even children into his workplace. Dr. Thomas called his approach the Eden Alternative, and he's written about it in his book A Life Worth Living: How Someone You Love Can Still Enjoy Life in a Nursing Home. He says his dream is to change every nursing home in America from a place that merely treats patients into a haven for elderly human beings.

THOMAS: Really, there's 3 plagues, I call them, that rage in every nursing home. And they're the plagues of loneliness, helplessness, and boredom. And it's kind of interesting from a doctor's point of view, there just is no medical treatment for loneliness, helplessness, and boredom. Those problems can only be addressed in an environmental or an ecological way. So that's where the idea of creating a human habitat inside the nursing home started to take shape.

CURWOOD: Human habitat. What do you mean?

THOMAS: When I think about taking a sick, old, frail person and putting them in a nursing home, I'm putting that person into an environment or a habitat that's not good for them. So the answer is not prescribing more drugs or giving more treatments or doing more surgery. The answer is in re-inventing the nursing home and making it into a habitat that nourishes and supports the people who live there and work there.

CURWOOD: What does it look like when you come into a patient's room where you have the Eden Alternative?

THOMAS: Well, I think you can go through it by the senses. The sight is of a rich array of green growing plants placed around the room. The smell can often come from flowers or herbs that are part of that green plant life in the room. The sound often will come from the parakeets, often up to 4 parakeets living in a single room chirping and reacting to each other and to the people who live there. The sound might also include the sound of kids tumbling into the room for a visit. Edenizing nursing homes really focus on having on-site child care, after-school programs, summer camps for kids.

CURWOOD: So you're saying the present model for a nursing home is really like a desert, an emotional and a spiritual desert?

THOMAS: [Sighs] It makes a desert, it makes a desert look great. You've got one species running rampant, homo sapiens. And maybe you've got a dead chrysanthemum over in the corner and that's it. It's the most unnatural environment we could almost possibly create. And that's what's the irony in this. You're creating a universe. For the people who live there, that nursing home is their entire world. And to choose to create an entire world for someone that is as sterile, stark, medically oriented, unnatural -- it's a tragedy.

CURWOOD: The prescription for loneliness, helplessness, and boredom --


CURWOOD: -- is your approach.


CURWOOD: And you found that by incorporating animals and kids and plants into nursing homes, you solve these problems?

THOMAS: That's right.

CURWOOD: What happens?

THOMAS: Well, we get people to connect with the living things around them and participate in the care of those living things. So people become not just recipients of care, but caregivers as well. That's one of the problems that conventional nursing homes is so terrible, is you're saying to people, "You're not connected any more. You don't belong any more. You're going to be here and we're going to treat your diseases and we're going to do everything for you." That's terribly, terribly unnatural and very damaging to the spirits of the people who live there.

CURWOOD: Can you give me an example of how this helps an individual?

THOMAS: Well, I mean, I'm going to tell you a story about a parakeet that saved a woman's life. There was a woman who I was taking care of at the time who'd had a stroke and wasn't able to speak. And she was kind of withdrawn and not doing well from a number of perspectives medically. But she agreed to take on the care of a small parakeet in her room. And she really started to enjoy that and it became a really important part of her daily work. Her daily life became to include the well-being of this parakeet. Well one day, I was making rounds and I was called down to see her; she was not feeling well, had a high fever, terrible pain in her abdomen. We sent her out to the hospital. She was evaluated by the surgeon and taken to the operating room and had really a major operation. When she came back to the hospital floor she got very agitated and was trying to communicate something to the nurses and they couldn't figure out what it was. Finally a family member came in to see her and could sort of figure out, it's her bird, it's her bird. She wants to know who's taking care of her bird. And we had a flurry of phone calls between the hospital and the nursing home where we began to, we reassured her oh yes, we'll make sure that your Tweety is taken care of. And she settled right down. She recovered really very quickly from the operation and came back to the nursing home, and immediately her very number one concern was checking in on Tweety and making sure that he was okay and he had been properly cared for in her absence. I think that bird saved that person's life because her love for that animal gave her a reason to fight through a terrible illness and come back and recover and be stronger than she ever was. I could never have given her a drug that would have caused that reaction; it had to come from her heart.

CURWOOD: Now, you've been talking about these wonderful beneficial effects of the Eden Alternative. Can you quantify some results?

THOMAS: Yeah. You know, we did a research project where we looked at a couple of factors that I think are really important.


THOMAS: We looked first at use of drugs in the nursing home, or medication use. And we compared ourselves to a control nursing home that was same size and matched to us statistically speaking. Over the Eden Alternative period the controlled nursing home drug costs continued to rise like they are in nursing homes all across America. In the Eden home the utilization of drugs dropped sharply. By the end of the study the nursing home that did the initial Eden project was saving $75,000 a year on drug costs, and I'll tell you that's a lot of bird seed. The second thing we looked at was the infection rate. Our hypothesis or idea was that people who have a reason to live are going to be more resistant to infection. And again we compared ourselves to a control, and we found that the infection rate dropped 50%.

CURWOOD: Medications in half and infections in half?

THOMAS: Yes, that's true. And the last thing, and I think probably the most important, is that we looked at the death rate. In the first year of the Eden Alternative the death rate dropped 15% and in the second year of the Eden Alternative it dropped 25% compared to control. You have to imagine sort of walking through this nursing home and realizing that given the size of the nursing home, at the end of that year there were 8 people alive who would have been dead in a conventional nursing home. And if I had been tinkering in my basement and had come up with a drug that could do that, it would be unbelievable. It would be front page news in the New York Times. But it's not a drug. It's a taste of the natural world brought back to the lives of people who really need this.

CURWOOD: Thank you so much for joining us.

THOMAS: You're welcome.

CURWOOD: My guest has been Dr. Bill Thomas, author of Life Worth Living: How Someone You Love Can Still Enjoy Life in a Nursing Home. Thanks for taking the time with us.

THOMAS: You betcha.

Back to top

(Music up and under: Beatles: "When I'm 64.")

Come Live With Me?

CURWOOD: The best, and sometimes the worst feature of living in a small town or close-knit community are neighbors. In days gone by, the folks next door or down the block were more likely to be friends, if not family. Now suburbanites can go for days without even glimpsing the people next door, and urbanites dwell alongside strangers. People in America move so much today that many of us have good friends everywhere except next door. To counter this trend, some folks are building intentional neighborhoods they call co-housing. Dan Grossman has been searching for a new place to live and looked into the co-housing option.

GROSSMAN: Last spring my wife and I were looking for a house, and a friend told me about an unusual development she was helping to build in a Boston suburb. Individual homes there, she said, would be owned privately, but the land around them would be owned jointly. Community life would revolve around a common house, where residents could cook and eat together. The concept is known as co-housing. It sounded to me like a blend of 60s idealism and 90s realism, kind of a cross between commune and condo. So I stopped by.

(A motor runs, and a saw buzzes. Lewin-Berlin: "We're standing in the middle of neighborhood 2 right now. The project is built out of, into 4 separate neighborhoods. My neighborhood is neighborhood 4, which is at the top of the hill, and we'll have...")

GROSSMAN: On a gently sloping, grassy hill, rising above a cornfield, a construction team is nailing siding onto what will be Steve Lewin-Berlin's house and raising the roof of another. In a matter of months, two dozen houses will climb this hillside, completing a process Lewin-Berlin and his wife began 5 years ago.

LEWIN-BERLIN: We really wanted to find a place where our kids could grow up outdoors and in more of a neighborhood, more of a community. And we didn't find it. We went to a small town that had great schools, the neighbors are friendly enough. But there's no real neighborhood, there's no real sense of community there.

GROSSMAN: Co-housing, he hopes, can create the community he craves.

LEWIN-BERLIN: And what we're really looking for in co-housing is a neighborhood. To be able to have a control not just of our own home, but as a group to control more space, to cluster the houses so we have lots of open fields for the kids to play in. Where we have our own house, we have our own space, we have our family, but we also have a larger community that we share with people.

GROSSMAN: The idea for co-housing was imported from Denmark, where thousands of people now live in such communities. Here in the US, a dozen co-housing developments have opened in the past 5 years: in Seattle, Santa Fe, and elsewhere.

(Children yelling)

GROSSMAN: At the Pioneer Valley Co-Housing Village in western Massachusetts, 32 pastel-colored homes are connected by a winding gravel walkway like leaves on a vine. Architect Mary Krauss helped design this place and now lives here. She says while the track record for co-housing in general is brief, her own experience shows it works.

KRAUSS: It may sound trite, but just the fact that my neighbor can call me up and say can you pick my daughter up at school. Or the fact that I can walk over to many houses and just, you know, ask to borrow something and vice versa. Just those little interactions create a real sense of connection.

GROSSMAN: Krauss says she was drawn to the co-housing idea by its environmental potential.

KRAUSS: I first got into architecture because of my concern for the environment, and was interested in single family residential architecture. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there are things you can do on a community scale, that you can't do on the scale of one house.

GROSSMAN: Things like build a common house. Members of this development often eat dinners together in an airy building a short stroll from their homes. Many residents leave kids in child care at the common house and put up friends in its' guest rooms. Because so much is shared, Krauss says houses here are relatively small, requiring fewer resources to build and less energy to heat.

KRAUSS: So we've got a main room that's kitchen, living and dining room, with a kitchen just along one wall, a fairly small, compact kitchen. Although it works quite well...

GROSSMAN: Since Pioneer Valley has a community laundry room and kitchen, many members don't have their own washing machines and dishwashers. And, Krauss adds, the close spacing of Pioneer Valley's homes promotes a lifestyle that conserves. For example, the community has organized bulk food purchases, reducing unneeded packaging and the number of grocery trips. At a weekly environmental salon, Krauss and others discuss new ways to use less.

KRAUSS: We've talked about having essentially a pool of cars. So rather than everybody owning their own car, you'd have access to enough, as a group, to enough cars that there'd always be one ready for you.

GROSSMAN: With barely a year of experience, Mary Krauss says it's still too early to say if her community will deliver the environmental payoffs she's predicted. But the effects on the landscape are apparent already. At Pioneer Valley, the 30 or so homes occupy only about 6 acres. Another 17 acres of the community's land was left undeveloped. Stella Tarnay, an editor of Co-Housing Journal, says the pattern preferred by co-housing designers like Krauss clusters homes tightly together, leaving more land open. And Tarnay says some co-housing communities don't disturb any open space at all.

TARNAY: For me, the exciting piece of co-housing is in fact the urban model. What we're hoping to do is take some old warehouses in the area between Cambridge and Somerville, and turn those into co-housing and common space. And to me that makes the most sense of all, because you don't use up resources. And you actually create something more beautiful and more useful out of an area that may have been abandoned.

GROSSMAN: In the end, my wife and I didn't join a co-housing group. But I did realize how much I desire the kind of social connection they're trying to build, and the environmental benefits such interdependence can bring. For Living on Earth, this is Daniel Grossman in Boston.

Back to top

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 is just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve 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 seeds-- 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 Riverway 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, Riverway President and biologist Michael Stewart is already excited by what he's finding.

STEWART: Look at these 2!

MAN: This is very encouraging.

STEWART: 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. We're going to see that come back.

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 out 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 guide 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 believes 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 sowing 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.

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 Dan Grossman, Liz Lempert, Peter Shaw, George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, Julia Madeson, Peter Christianson, Jesse Wegman, Susan Shepherd, and Jill Hecht. Chris Ballman is the senior producer. Peter Thomson heads our western bureau. Our engineers are Dan Donovan at WBUR and Jeff Martini at Harvard. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the W. Alton Jones Foundation for reporting on environmental economics; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; the Great Lakes Protection Fund; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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