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

August 8, 1997

Air Date: August 8, 1997



A land preserve is being planned in Ithaca, New York that would be the first known temperate forest biopreserve with chemical prospecting for pharmaceutical plants in mind. Tatiana Schreiber reports on the hopes of what may be gained from the project, who is formulating it, and why. (09:40)

FABULOUS FUNGI / Sy Montgomery

Commentator Sy Montgomery praises mushrooms despite their sometimes sullied reputation. (02:30)


Steve Curwood speaks with Alan Durning, author of "This Place On Earth: Home and the Practice of Permanence". Durning talks about his realized desire to have a place to call home, and the importance of a home in caring for the land, and the landscape. (08:30)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Facts about... Smokey the bear's "birthday". (01:15)

MOTHER GANGES / Richard Schiffman

Richard Schiffman reports from Benares, India on the banks of the Ganges River on the essential role the river plays in people's daily lives which includes drinking, washing, bathing in Hindu religious rites, and even as a destination for cremated human ashes. Pollution is a problem along the river and a subtle campaign of clean-up awareness, stressing inhabitants' sacred relationship to their "River Mother, " is afoot. (13:00)

HOME TO THE RIVER / Susan Carol Hauser

Susan Carol Hauser comments on a canoe trip she took on the Mississippi River and how it relates to her daily life. (02:52)


Steve Curwood talks with author Donovan Webster about his new book titled Aftermath: The Remnants of War, in which Mr. Webster traveled the world documenting the death toll and destruction of twentieth century wars. The book is published by Pantheon Books. (09:50)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript


HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Lisa Mullins
REPORTERS: James Jones, Michael Lawton, Steve Frenkel,
Tatiana Schreiber, Richard Schiffman
GUESTS: Alan Durning, Donovan Webster
COMMENTATORS: Sy Montgomery, Susan Carol Hauser

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

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

The tropical rainforest isn't the only place where nature makes pharmaceuticals. There's a new wave of chemical prospecting right here in North America's forests that's studying the possibility of developing drugs from plant defenses.

EISNER: A chemical that might repel insects in a plant could secondarily inhibit the growth of cells, and could be used for the control of the growth of tumors. In other words, could be used as an anti-cancer agent.

CURWOOD: Also, one man's search for a sense of place in our modern, mobile society.

DURNING: People are recognizing that in the rush for personal advancement and for material affluence, we've sacrificed some important things. And we've sacrificed most notably the connections to each other.

CURWOOD: And we'll hear about the passion for mushrooms. We have those stories and more this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this news.

Environmental News

MULLINS: From Living on Earth, I'm Lisa Mullins. Supporters of the Clinton Administration's air quality standards say they have enough votes in the House of Representatives to block any attempt to overturn them. As James Jones reports, the highly anticipated battle over the controversial rules to curb smog and soot may be over before it begins.

JONES: Backers of the Clean Air standards say they have the support of over a third of House members. That's enough to prevent opponents of the regulation from overriding a Presidential veto. President Clinton would likely veto any legislation that would weaken the standards. The announcement deals a sharp blow to those who had hoped to delay the regulations. Greg Whetstone of the Natural Resources Defense Council says House leaders would be wise to avoid a battle over the matter.

WHETSTONE: Everyone involved recognizes now that the challenge to the Clear Air rules is an ill-fated one, and I question whether Republican leaders will want to bring a measure like that to the floor, because it is going to be so unpopular with the general public, and it's just exactly the kind of thing that got Republican leadership in trouble in the last Congress. And I think they don't want to do it again.

JONES: Opponents of the standards say the debate is far from over, and vow to renew their lobbying efforts when Congress returns from the August recess. For Living on Earth, this is James Jones in Washington.

MULLINS: Greenpeace is abandoning its door to door canvassing operation. The environmental group is also laying off 300 workers and closing all its US offices except for its Washington DC, branch. Greenpeace says it's been forced to cut its budget by one third because it hasn't been raising as much money as it used to . The group says its lost support to local environmental organizations, and the fundraising has become difficult because people think the Clinton Administration is taking care of the environment. The president of the Sierra Club says that he's not surprised. His organization has also seen a decline in contributions since President Clinton took office.

The water is beginning to recede in the flooded areas of central Europe, where 100 people have died and huge areas were devastated. Hot air from the Balkans meeting cold air from the Alps caused the downpours, but environmentalists are saying that human interference was largely responsible for the actual floods. From Cologne, Michael Lawton reports.

LAWTON: Pollution from the Czech Republic's huge dirty coal-fired power stations has killed the forests, and the weak dusty earth on the mountain can't absorb the rain any more. Once too much of the land along the rivers was used for grazing cattle, so that it could be flooded when water levels were high. Now the land has been asphalted and dikes have been built, forcing the river to rise with the catastrophic consequences of the last few weeks. A consensus is developing that policy must change. The local State Environment Minister, Matthias Platzik, a member of the Green Party, has long campaigned for more floodable areas along the river. The Worldwide Fund for Nature in Germany has even called for some of the flooded areas to be given up for good with the population never being allowed to return. That's an extreme view, but now even Chancellor Kohl has said that we must give the rivers their space. For Living on Earth, this is Michael Lawton in Cologne.

MULLINS: The round gobi fish isn't native to North America, and with no natural enemies it's spread quickly through the Great Lakes. Now the goby is poised to invade the Mississippi River, but as Steve Frenkel of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium explains, the Army Corps of Engineers is trying to keep that from happening.

FRENKEL: The round goby threatens native fish populations around the Great Lakes. It eats trout and sculpin eggs and overruns their spawning areas. If the gobi enters the Mississippi River there'll be no way to stop it from spreading all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. The best place to block the goby is at the manmade sanitarian ship canal near Chicago. It's the only link between the Mississippi and the Great Lakes. The Army Corps of Engineers plans to install electric wires at the bottom of the canal. The wires will create an electric field that could repel the goby. The current may prevent other bottom-dwelling fish from entering the Mississippi. But Corps Engineers say blocking the gobi must be done at any cost. A scaled-down version of the electric field will be tested later this summer. If it works, it could be installed in the canal within a year. For Living on Earth, I'm Steve Frenkel in Chicago.

MULLINS: And finally, researchers at the University of Washington have invented a car that runs on liquid nitrogen, a cheap non-toxic chemical that can be made by freezing air. Like a steam engine, the motor runs when liquid turns to vapor, and the exhaust is harmless. The vehicle, which is actually a converted mail truck, can't go very far, and its top speed is only 22 miles per hour. But the researchers say liquid nitrogen-powered cars could be twice as efficient as electric cars, with no batteries to recharge. Automotive engineers are interested in the technology, but they also worry that it might cost too much.

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

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood with an encore edition of Living on Earth. If you have had ovarian cancer, you may have been given the drug Taxol to help fight the disease. Taxol, which has earned hundreds of millions of dollars in sales so far for its manufacturer, Bristol-Myers Squibb, was originally derived from the bark of the yew tree, which grows in the Pacific Northwest. But some of the most commercially valuable drugs, including Taxol, are found in the temperate forests of the United States. These resources have gone largely unexplored. That will soon change if efforts to establish the world's first temperate zone biodiversity preserve are successful. Tatiana Schreiber explains.



SAM: Well, you know wild celery?


SAM: I found one of those things where it wasn't on wild celery...

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

(Footfalls through tall grasses)

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

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

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

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

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

HODGE: Pretty dry in here.

EISNER: Mm hm.

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

HODGE: I found oyster mushrooms!

EISNER: All right! Good!

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

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

EISNER: What are these guys?

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

(Sounds echoing indoors)

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

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

HODGE: So now we're looking really up close at the cyclosporin fungus, and we can see a lot of spores floating around the kind of the dark circles here. And this Christmas tree-looking thing is the structure that's producing those spores. So it's part of the body of the fungus, and it's squeezing out the spores...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HAMMOND: One of the principal, you know, ideas on which some of these deals are based is that the pharmaceutical company will patent the plant or the DNA segment from the plant or one of its parts, in order to commercialize a product derived from them. And we ultimately feel that, you know, the patenting of life is both something that's immoral and is technically unworkable. And if you look at the patent and trademark office, which is virtually going under in a sea of patent applications on DNA segments and stuff like that, I think that is readily apparent.

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

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

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

EISNER: What we find in species nowadays is a reflection of not so much what is there but of that which we know how to find. New techniques for looking at coming on line all the time. So maintaining this extraordinary library of information known as Mother Nature, healthy and live, is the most important thing we can do for our descendants. Because it's inexhaustible, the genetic resources of nature, to find out what they are. So for that reason alone, every species has to be looked at with a certain amount of awe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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CURWOOD: For years, people concerned about the planet have been urged to think globally and act locally. But one writer says we have to think locally before we can act at all. A conversation with author Alan Durning is next on Living on Earth.

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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Think globally and act locally; it's practically a mantra in environmental circles. But to think really locally, you have to identify with a particular locale. You have to have a sense that you belong somewhere, that you are part of one distinct set of surroundings. In short, you have to have a home. But home is an increasingly transient idea to most of us. Where is your home? Your community? Is it where you were born? Where you grew up? Where you live now? Alan Durning is a writer and a regular commentator on Living on Earth. In his new book, This Place on Earth: Home and the Practice of Permanence, he explores his own community, Seattle, and the surrounding bio-region. He's rediscovering the land and the people after years away from it. Alan, at the beginning of this book, you wrote that as a child you always wanted to be a traveler, but then you say something happened to you that made you change your mind?

DURNING: Yeah, you know, I spent most of a decade traveling the world for the World Watch Institute as a senior researcher writing about environmental and social problems all over the place. And then I was in the Philippines interviewing members of remote hill tribes about their land and livelihood, the struggles that they are engaged in to defend their homelands against loggers and miners and other resource developers. And towards the end of a sweltering hot day in the homeland of the Banwalen people in the far south of the country, I was sitting under this tree with this old woman who was revered by the others as a sort of traditional priestess. All of a sudden she turned the tables on me, and she asked me a question. She said, "Tell me about your place." And I didn't know what to say. Well, I mean, I had an apartment at that time on the edge of Washington, DC. But it wasn't really my place. I mean, it was an address, but it was more of a base camp than anything else. And in the end, I just sort of admitted to her, I said, "In America we have careers, not places." And the look of pity that she gave me burned me so deeply that ultimately it drove me away from Washington, DC, and led me to quit my job and come back to the place where I was born and grew up to try to re-establish connections to my place.

CURWOOD: What was it that going home -- and Seattle is the place that you call home -- what was it, what did this mean to you emotionally? And what were you looking for?

DURNING: I was looking for a sense of physical and emotional peace, I guess. And I got it, and I got back into Seattle, and I just felt my body sort of relaxing almost. Like I had traveled enough and it was time to put down some roots.

CURWOOD: Being home means what to you, do you think?

DURNING: It means being in a place that you know personally, both through a lifetime of experiences, memories, stories, associations. Also that you consciously know a whole lot about the place, about its history, about its ecology, about the different species that you share that habitat with. It means knowing neighbors and friends all around the region. It means being settled. It's a question that folks outside of North America wouldn't have to ask, but in North America we're such a mobile population that this concept of homeland is kind of foreign to us.

CURWOOD: And yeah, you may be an extreme example, but we do seem to be inlove with going places in the United States. Why do you think we move so much?

DURNING: I think partly it's because of our history. We're still driven by a kind of frontier mentality that's outlived the frontier by 100 years. There was always the idea that you could, you were so much of a discrete individual that you could go somewhere else and reinvent yourself. Americans move on average every 6 years to another county or province. And that rate of mobility has been high through most of our history, though interestingly, in the last 10 years, it's begun to decline. I'm not saying that people should just completely stay put, you know? Some amount of moving around is probably good, and a bit of travel to widen our life experience is good as well. But I think we ought to ask ourselves the question, I think it ought to be an issue.

CURWOOD: You say that the willingness or the propensity to move is going down slightly. Why do you suppose that is?

DURNING: People are recognizing that in the rush for personal advancement and for material affluence we've sacrificed some important things, and we've sacrificed most notably the connections to each other. That is, there's a searching for community. I think maybe that the decline in mobility is in some ways a reflection of that quest for community, rather than simply more consumer goods.

CURWOOD: Mobility is pretty expensive, isn't it? I mean, of course there are obvious expenses in terms of roads, highways, picking up, packing up, moving on, spending for all of that. But there are some hidden costs of mobility as well, right?

DURNING: Big hidden cost is that we have neighborhoods full of people who don't know each other, who don't have any shared experience, who know very little about the landscape they inhabit. And therefore don't have the emotional stake to protect those landscapes. To me, when I see the advancing sprawl on the peripheries of my home town of Seattle, it comes as a personal insult because those are places that I grew up playing in. It was countryside. It was farms that I went to and valleys and salmon streams, and now it's turning into subdivisions. The folks who are moving into those subdivisions overall have no idea what it used to be. If there is an escape hatch for our increasingly global consumer society, which is on all sides degrading its natural environment, the reattachment to home, to places, may be that escape hatch. It might be the way that we can tap into a set of emotions and passions that are more powerful than the short-sightedness and greed that propel us toward the brink.

CURWOOD: What do we lose in terms of relationships with each other when we move so much?

DURNING: Americans have spent, in the last 20 years, we're spending less and less time in conversation with neighbors. That's maybe one of the most interesting bits of statistical evidence that I've ever happened upon.

CURWOOD: Really? Less time talking to neighbors?

DURNING: Less time talking to neighbors. Less time in idle sidewalk chat. We're spending more time watching television and driving and shopping and working. Less time in conversation.


DURNING: I think we are losing some of the skills of neighborliness.

CURWOOD: So how did you get connected to your neighbors?

DURNING: What happened was, my eldest son got interested in basketball, and so one Saturday we went out and bought a used basketball hoop and put it up on our driveway. To do it I had to get some tools I didn't have. I needed a ladder, for example, and that sent me up and down the street knocking on doors, even to some houses that I'd been kind of leery of visiting, because I didn't know whether I could trust the folks inside. But it gave me the excuse to meet all those folks, and as it turned out they were enthusiastic that I was going to do something, put up a basketball hoop, that would be a place for their kids to play. After the hoop was up, it created a gathering place, a natural center for community building on our street. I call it a loom of community in the book, because the kids would be playing and adults would wander by and watch, make conversation. Watching the game was a natural thing to converse about, because the folks on my street don't share too many things. We come from all different races and economic and ethnic backgrounds, but basketball is a common ground.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this much time with us. Alan Durning lives with his family in Seattle. He's founder and executive director of Northwest Environment Watch, and a regular commentator on Living on Earth. His latest book is called This Place on
Earth: Home and the Practice of Permanence. Thanks, Alan.

DURNING: Thank you, Steve.

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

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; Stonyfield Farm, makers of pure all- natural organic yogurts and ice cream. 1-800-PROCOWS for Stonyfield's Moosletter; and Jennifer and Ted Stanley.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Environmental science and spirituality mix in the waters of India's greatest river. Cleaning up the Ganges just ahead 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 Almanac

CURWOOD: For millions of Americans each year, summer vacation means packing up the car and heading to a national park. Yellowstone was the nation's first national park, established in 1872, but it wasn't until 1916 that President Woodrow Wilson created the National Parks Service. In its first year the park system listed 360,000 visits. Today that figure has climbed to nearly 270 million annually, more than one for every person in the country. All told, there are 375 parks and monuments which the Park Service manages. More than half the system still charges no entrance fees. But while getting away from it all may be easy, you'll have plenty of company. Together the Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite National Parks combined to host more than 18 million visitors last year. And in a recent summer, overcrowding forced Yosemite to close its gates 11 times. But while the more popular parks may resemble parking lots, others like Alaska's Kobek Valley still host fewer than 3,000 visitors a year. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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CURWOOD: Cleaning up air and water ranks high on the list of things Americans want their government to do. And there is an active core of environmental lobbyists to keep up the pressure. But environmental advocacy is often different in the developing world. One such country is India. There are few environmental activists on the Indian subcontinent today and no organized green movement, despite such environmental disasters as the Bhopal tragedy. But the people there are beginning to organize around issues of concern to their communities. Richard Schiffman reports on a campaign in northern India to clean up one of the Earth's great rivers. It's a campaign that takes its inspiration as much from spirituality as from environmental science.

(Singing and splashing in the water)

SCHIFFMAN: The dawning sun hasn't yet broken through the haze which cloaks the river, but already hundreds have gathered on the banks. These early risers are the first of an estimated 60,000 people who will take their ritual baths today at Benares, a city which some say is the oldest urban area on the planet. And for Hindus it's also the holiest. What makes Benares holy is the river which forms its eastern boundary, a river which Hindus affectionately call Gangama: Mother Ganges.

MISHRA: I have a very close relationship with the river. I consider the river as a goddess, mother. I can't stop taking holy dip in the river and bringing my prayers. That is how my day starts.

SCHIFFMAN: Vir Badra Mishra is something of an anomaly in a holy city where tradition and modern ways don't always mix. He's the mahant, or hereditary spiritual leader, of a major temple, who also happens to be a trained scientist and professor of civil engineering at Benares Hindu University. And he's an environmental activist as well. As a devout Hindu, it offended Mahant Mishra to see his beloved river fouled.

MISHRA: This tradition, faith on the one hand and science and technology on the other hand, both working in me, led to this campaign, Suchunganga campaign, clean Ganges campaign.

(Splashing in the water)

SCHIFFMAN: Out on the river it's not hard to see where the problem lies. The banks are teeming with activities. Cows and goats wander on the stone platforms fronting the shore. Scores of bathers are soaping up. Children are defecating. And human bodies are being cremated. And just upriver from the burning gatts we pass a long line of men and women beating sudsy piles with wooden paddles.

(Sounds of laundry being beaten)

PANDE: They're washing clothes, so they collect all the clothes from the houses and they're washing here.

(Beating/washing sounds continue)

SCHIFFMAN: There are also illegal housing developments and shanty towns coming up near the banks of the Ganges just south of Benares. But my companion, environmental student Ashug Pande, says the greatest offense to the Ganges by far are the streams of raw sewage that pour into the river at various points. One of the most blatant is this open cataract just below Mother Theresa's home for the dying.

(Running sewage)

SCHIFFMAN: In places, the Ganges contains 3,000 times the level of fecal coliform bacteria that the World Health Organization deems safe for bathing. And the people of Benares don't only bathe in the Ganges. A hundred yards upstream from the open sewer are the massive intake pumps for Benares's drinking water supply.

PANDE: These pumps and the water from Ungato, the central treatment plant, and from there they supply to the houses.

SCHIFFMAN: Ashug Pande adds that the river water is often inadequately treated. Not surprisingly, most Benares residents suffer from intestinal parasites.

V. MISHRA: It mirrors in malnourishment, and malnourishment can result in weakening of immune system.

SCHIFFMAN: Dr. Vijay Anath Mishra is the son of Mahant Mishra.

V. MISHRA: And weakening of immune system can again result in severe reinfection, which will again result in all these steps, so the vicious circle goes on. And I think to break this vicious circle, the most important part is to provide a safe drinking water.

(Celebration music and ambient conversation)

SCHIFFMAN: A marriage party winds its way to the banks of the Ganges with its entourage of musicians sporting red and yellow silk turbans. The celebrants crowd into a wooden launch for a ceremonial cruise, and one is reminded yet again that for hundreds of millions of people this is more than just a river. It's a place where Indians come to celebrate the mileposts of their lives from birth till death, and to commune with the Ganges, their mother. And it's not just Indians who come here. Catherine Porter is a member of Friends of the Ganges USA.

PORTER: I work day to day in the environmental movement in the United States, and I deal with statistics and science and lobbyists and activists and politics. And it can be alienating from nature itself.


PORTER: When I go to India and when I sit by the Ganges and the sun comes up and thousands of people come down to do their morning worship, they chant, they sing. These beautiful dolphins rise in the water. It's such a whole experience of life, nature, community, religion. I just feel like I'm back in touch with why I'm part of the environmental movement.

(Singing continues)

SCHIFFMAN: The western and Indian environmentalists alike share an almost mystical relationship with Mother Ganges. And they've learned to speak with a special delicacy and tact about her problems.

MISHRA: If we just go and tell the people that Ganga is polluted, if you are going to use Ganga water you will fall sick, Ganga is no more a healthy river, if you just continue this type of talk for 1 or 2 minutes, people will say that we don't want to listen to this about Ganga is still our mother, our goddess, and Ganga can never be polluted. But if you say how do you feel if sewage is thrown on the body of your mother, people will immediately react, no that should not happen.

SCHIFFMAN: Professor Mishra's role as an environmentalist dates from the late 1970s when he wrote a series of popular, if disturbing, newspaper articles chronicling the deterioration of the Ganges. Shortly thereafter, he was invited to the US.

(Pete Seeger sings: "Five million gallons of waste a day...")

SCHIFFMAN: In New York, Professor Mishra met Hudson River activist Pete Seeger.

(Seeger: "Down the valley, one million toilet chains/Find my Hudson so convenient place to drain./And each little city says who me?/Do you think that sewage plants come free?")

SCHIFFMAN: It was a new concept for Mishra that people could band together to save a river. But when he returned to India he decided to try it in Benares, where he started the Clean Ganges Campaign. At first people didn't know what to make of the revered Mahant's environmental activism. But then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi responded in December 1984 with an address to the nation. He announced the creation of the Central Ganges Authority, which he charged with cleaning up the river.

MISHRA: The same day, people started congratulating me. People started talking so high of me and our organization. And it was a phenomenal change. And of course, when we started in 1982, we didn't think that the results, or such positive results will come in less than 2 years time.

SCHIFFMAN: But Mahant Mishra's exaltation was to be short- lived. Although the well-funded authority built sewage treatment plants at Benares and other major cities along the Ganges, the river remained fouled. The sewage treatment plant shuts down during the regular power cuts that plague Benares. And Professor Mishra says that the equipment is poorly used and indifferently maintained. Even when it's working, he says, the effluent which leaves the plant is often filthy, little better than raw sewage. Mahant Mishra and Catherine Porter envision a low-tech solution, one that doesn't depend on electricity or complex machinery.

PORTER: There are many communities in the United States that are using oxidation ponds to treat their sewage. This is what we'd like to see happen in Benares, and we're doing some experimental work to see if that would be appropriate for this community.

SCHIFFMAN: Last year, the environmentalists petitioned the Supreme Court of India. The Court ruled to freeze spending on the Ganges cleanup until the government comes up with the right technology for the job. Mahant Mishra says he isn't pinning all his hopes on the central government. Professor Mishra says that until those who live along the river develop the political will to clean it, the Ganges will likely remain polluted.

MISHRA: The bureaucracy, the government machinery which has implemented the Ganga action plan, they are not committed to the river. They are not committed to the job. The people who love the river, whose life depends on the river, who use the river, I think their work will be more positive to clean the river.

(Ceremonial music)

SCHIFFMAN: The state government of Udar Pradesh, where Benares is located, clearly agrees with Mahant Mishra that the people need to get involved. They've sponsored a play on the banks of the Ganges to encourage the residents of Benares to keep their river clean.

(Music and narration)

SCHIFFMAN: The play recounts the river's story. Long ago the goddess Ganga descended from heaven, through Shiva's matted locks, to cool the rage of the god and to bless the Earth forever with goodness and fertility. But now demons attack the mother's flowing body. The demons of pollution.

(Music and narration continue)

SCHIFFMAN: India's river activists, like Mahant Mishra, envision a new type of environmentalism. They say that it's better to appeal to people's reverence for the natural world than to play to their fears.

(Music continues; applause)

MISHRA: The Clean Ganges Campaign is an example in India where the love and respect for the river is the motivating force, and it's not the fear of death and fear of extinction. And it would be much better if we start acting to save our morals. We say "genenee mon pormischal,"that is our place of birth is genenee, is our mother. And the whole planet, this Earth, is mother. She is living.

(Music and singing continue)

SCHIFFMAN: From the banks of the River Ganges in north India, I am Richard Schiffman for Living on Earth.

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CURWOOD: The United States also has its river of national identity. It's called the Mississippi. And commentator Susan Carol Hauser enjoyed the riches of its northern reach on a summer afternoon.

HAUSER: Just east of Bemidji, Minnesota, my friend Helen and I put our canoe into the Mississippi River and let ourselves into the current. In about 4 hours we will arrive at Wolf Lake. We'll paddle across the bay to the resort where we left our car and we'll climb back into the stream of our busy lives. But for this fine morning we belong to the river. Our families and our other friends are held away from us by tangles of poison ivy, hazelnut, high bush cranberry, pines, maples, oaks, and willows.

The river, too, colludes with us. Its water burbles over rocks and stones, silencing memory, and glitters in the midmorning sun. Human desire pales in comparison. Ducks and great blue herons move systematically ahead of us as though to shield us from intruders. Only the kingfishers complain. They watch us from their dead branch perches,then dart ahead of us or behind us or right past us and brazenly dive into the water, splashing like neighborhood bullies.

We don't mind. We make our own noise as we move along, speaking softly at first, then louder, until finally we are singing at high lung capacity, acting like bullies ourselves, scaring turtles off logs and sandpipers off their sandbars.

In between those bursts of song we talk to each other. Here on the Mississippi, it seems safe to wonder if our lives will move along the way the river does to an inevitable delta. Seems right to hope for our children, to ache at their sorrows. Seems possible to learn how to read water.

Back where we started, the river was shallow and its banks high. As we near Wolf Lake the water deepens and the land flattens out. Canary grass sways over our heads. Above in the blissfully clear sky, a bald eagle plies thermals. When we enter the lake and cross the bay, the current of the river goes its own way, carrying out its mission in secret. As we dig with our paddles into the windy waters, our voices fail us but our will returns. We are weary, yet refreshed. Like the river, we cannot help but find our way home.

CURWOOD: Commentator Susan Carol Hauser is author of Full Moon: Reflections on Turning Fifty, published by Papier Mache Press. She comes to us via Minnesota Public Radio's KCRB in Bemidji.

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CURWOOD: The clear and present dangers from past wars. That's coming up on Living on Earth.

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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, four years after it began, the first World War came to an end. In the US, the day is called Armistice Day. North Americans have largely forgotten about this war that killed more than 5 million military personnel, injured nearly 13 million more, and left an estimated 8 million civilians dead. But the nations in which World War I was fought have very real present-day reminders. Shells from the so-called "war to end all wars" still accidentally explode and kill people to this day. In his book Aftermath, writer Donovan Webster traveled the world documenting the damage that all of this century's major wars have done to the landscape and its people. His tour began in France, where artillery shells left over from World War I are still a common hazard. Here, a small core of men called demineurs have the job of cleaning up this military pollution.

WEBSTER: We were driving along the Chemin de Dam which is the site of 2 large battles, and we were trying to get to this little town called Chevre Rival, and it took us a while to get there because we were having to keep stopping to pick up shells that were just incidentally laid along the roadside. We would drive down the road a little farther and a farmer named Corvitz, we have to go see. And he comes charging out of his house. He's got his boots on, he's been waiting for us all morning, he's waving his fists in the air and he's like, "I've got some shells and grenades over here!" So we go over across the road to his barn, and up against his barn is a pile of rags. And he lifts this, some of the rags off this pile and there are a couple of shells and a couple grenades and they lift them up. We start taking them to the car and he says, "Look, I've got an orchard in here, do you want to go collect there, too? I hate it because I've got to mow up there and I'm always afraid children are going to be playing in the pile I have of shells and, you know, dud shells, they're unexploded artillery shells. And that they may have moved one, my mower will hit it and I'll blow up. And we said well sure, we're here. We drive up into his orchard and he stops and he points. And it looked like a refuse pile at a construction site. I mean, he's got a mound as high as your thighs of unexploded shells. These guys are just, they're just shaking their heads, they're like... and we finally, Remy Delouse, who's the co-leader of this group, turns to me and says, "Now, you see what I'm talking about?"

CURWOOD: Now, on the cover of your book, there's a man, he's got thick rubber gloves and he has, looks like old shells just covered with dirt and barnacles and slime. There's no face on this person. But he's holding these, this unexploded ordnance almost lovingly.

WEBSTER: Yeah, it's remarkably low tech. They go out in the mud and they pick them up and they carry them back to a truck and then they put them in the back of the truck and they take them to a depot, and then one week out of every month they blow up what they've collected. They dig a pit so that all the blast is directed upward, and then they blow them up. So they know they're all gone, for good.

CURWOOD: Now it's been -- what, 50 years since there last was a battle fought in France? It's been, what -- 80 years since the end of World War I. Now, how many people die from leftover munitions from those wars?

WEBSTER: Roughly 90 people a year, on average, are killed or injured by these, and this is just in France. This isn't in Holland or, you know, Denmark or anything like that. But France had the biggest problem because they really had the static war. I mean, they had 2 armies just throwing shells at each other for 4 years.

CURWOOD: So 90 people a year you figure in France, that's probably more people than are killed, say, in aircraft every year there.

WEBSTER: Likely, yeah. I mean, that's as many people as -- Americans killed in the Gulf War, you know.

CURWOOD: From which war do they get most of their stuff?

WEBSTER: Oh, by far, 80%, 90% from the first World War. There were just that many more shells fired. The detonators didn't work as well. There was 15% detonator failure, they estimate. And there were days when they'd shoot 11 million shells, in a day, from one place.

CURWOOD: Eleven million shells?

WEBSTER: At the Chemin de Dam. You know, they're littering the soil there, and that's why they've had to close off those forests. But World War I by far has the most shells. I mean, they clean 800, 900 tons of shells a year. They could clean a lot more. And that's a number that never changes.

CURWOOD: And the government has what? 100, 125 people doing this.

WEBSTER: Their hiring practices are sort of quiet. It's not an equal opportunity kind of a thing. You get tapped to come in by people who do it. And so, yeah, the year I was there, there were 123.

CURWOOD: And how many die each year?

WEBSTER: Average 18.

CURWOOD: So, in other words, 5 years is a long time to keep this job alive.

WEBSTER: It's a young man's job. The guy who I interviewed at the beginning is, was in his late 40s when I interviewed him. And that year we're sitting at lunch and he says, "This has been a really good year. "It's the end of September. "We've only lost 11 men." Three weeks later he lifted up an artillery shell that appeared to have some poison gas in it. He put on his gas mask, he put on his gloves. He lifted it up. Gas escaped, got under his mask, and gravely wounded him. He's back at work now, finally, you know, 3 years later, and he still -- it's, you know, he's not fully at work.

CURWOOD: How much land have the French cleared of their unexploded munitions, do you think?

WEBSTER: They estimate 2 million acres, although it's not really clear. You know, we would drive through places that have been okayed for farming again, and every mile or 2 there's still a shell that the farmer's found in his field and drags to the side of the road.

CURWOOD: Let me try to get this right. How long would it take for France to get rid of all these unexploded munitions on their territory at the present rate they're going?

WEBSTER: They wouldn't tell me. They have no -- I expect they have no idea. They estimate, still, though, there are 10 million unexploded and buried shells around Verdun alone.

CURWOOD: You mean you talked about how a -- what, how many tons of ordinance would fall on one square meter?


CURWOOD: And -- I mean, how do they even find bodies after something like that?

WEBSTER: Perhaps -- early on the thing that affected me the most was at Verdun, where more than a million men were lost in that siege. And only 290,000 identifiable bodies remained. And these were just -- I mean, these were bodies they could tell were bodies. The 710,000 others were, you know, rough and change, they wrote off. They said well, explosions took them, the mud swallowed them. Of the 290,000 bodies they recovered, they could only identify 130,000 -- or 160,000 of them; the other 130 were merely parts. And they took those parts and put them in a big building that is just as sobering as any place on earth. I mean, 130,000 men, and they've got -- it's really rough, it's amazing.

CURWOOD: Go ahead.

WEBSTER: You just, you go there and it's a very, it looks like a piece of French bread, sort of. And it's maybe a quarter mile long. It's just a block house but it's beautifully done. They've got little windows in the bottom. They originally took the bodies, they put them all in a provisional warehouse and then forgot about them. I mean, all the places I went pretty much part of it is about active forgetting. You know, no one wants to really remember these places. Ultimately, they had to clean up the landscape and everybody from the Red Cross to the Boy Scouts helped them clean it up. Just they felt out of respect both to the dead and to the war, they had to do this, not to mention to clean up France. Well, they finally built this amazing building through international funds and the French spent a lot of money on it and the Church spent a lot of money, the Catholic Church. And along the bottom, base, they put all these men in there. Along the base of the building where you can see inside, where they put them in, it's just bones as far as you can see.



CURWOOD: Now, what about the rest of the world? If 90 people a year die in France from this, how many people die around the world from the stuff that's left over from wars?

WEBSTER: There's never been a number calculated for that. I mean, our State Department generates that 26 to 28,000 people a year are killed by land mines alone.

CURWOOD: Twenty-six to twenty-eight thousand people.

WEBSTER: Yes, and that's down from a high of -- have killed or injured as many as 100,000. That's just 3 years ago. So it's, the situation is stabilizing.

CURWOOD: Is there anything positive that comes out of this detritus of war?

WEBSTER: Yes. You go to a place like Vietnam, and you fly into Noy Vey Airport, Hanoi, which was once a huge airfield in the war. And as you fly in you see bomb craters as far as you can see that are still in the ground, you know, have been left there for 25 years. The Vietnamese have taken these craters, they've knit them together with dikes. They are always at want for protein as a nation, and they're fish farming in them. And you know, the idea that they have pulled life, you know, turned war inside out and pulled life out of it, that's one of the things I want to do in this book is have people stare at the reality of this and say okay, how can we make it, turn this around? And the Vietnamese have done it all over, you know. In the DMZ, this is one of their favorite stories, they collect all the scrap. They grade it, you know, different grades of scrap metal, steel. They send it to a series of 10 different rolling mills, steel mills, in which case they may turn it into I-beams or wiring conduit. You know, they're building skyscrapers really like crazy now, or else they turn it into ingots, sell it to the Japanese, the Japanese turn it into cars which they sell back to us, and the Vietnamese think that is the funniest thing in the world.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with us today.

WEBSTER: It's been my pleasure. Thank you very much, I love the show.

CURWOOD: Donovan Webster's book is called Aftermath: The Remnants of War.
Thank you, sir.

WEBSTER: Thank you.

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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our production team includes George Homsy, Liz Lempert, Jesse Wegman, and Julia Madeson, Peter Christianson, Peter Shaw, and Daniel Grossman. Our associate editor is Kim Motylewski. Peter Thomson heads our western bureau. And we had help from Tom Kuo, Jill Hecht, and Emma Hayes. Chris Ballman is the senior producer. Our program is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Michael Aharon composed the theme. I'm Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation.

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