January 2, 1998
Air Date: January 2, 1998
Presidio Houses: Lanadmarks of Controversy/ Peter Thomson
Last week we reported on a controversy at the former military base in San Francisco called the Presidio which recently became a national park that is attempting to be financially self-sufficient. Now, there's an intriguing sub-plot to the story that concerns a cluster of abandoned military quarters at the Presidio. A plan to tear down the houses has drawn protests from advocates for the city's large homeless population and spawned a contentious battle between them and Bay area environmentalists. Living On Earth's Peter Thomson prepared our report. (09:05)
Fuzzy Forensics!/ Terry FitzPatrick
Illegal hunting is a major problem in the U.S. as is the black-market trade in exotic pets, and the importation of products made from endangered species. The problem is so severe that officials have turned to the high-tech tools of human crime fighting to catch poachers and smugglers. They've built a forensic laboratory that's so sophisticated it's been dubbed the "Scotland Yard" of wildlife law enforcement. Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick spent a day at the lab in Ashland, Oregon. (07:40)
Minks in the Chicken Coop/ Sy Montgomery
The discovery of dead animals put commentator Sy Montgomery in hot pursuit of an unidentified culprit. It all began early one Friday morning when Sy and her husband went to feed and water their eight chickens; and found only two of them alive. (03:06)
The Living on Earth Almanac
This week, facts about... humorous nature writer Will Cuppy. (01:15)
Earth Protection: At the Core of Judaism/ Richard Schiffman
Some Jews say that their people won't be truly free until the earth itself is freed from the bondage of ecological abuse, and humans return to the Promised Land of living in harmony with nature. Richard Schiffman reports on emerging environmental theology in the Jewish community. (10:55)
Steve Curwood spoke with author Wade Davis about some of the adventures recounted in his book One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rainforest. (08:50)
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)
HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Peter Thomson, Terry FitzPatrick, Richard Schiffman
GUESTS: Wade Davis
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.
(NPR News follows)
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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
In San Francisco's Presidio, there are old army barracks and other buildings slated to be demolished to make way for a national park. But some folks say use them to house them city's homeless.
GALVIN: When you think about families living under freeways right now, isn't it incredible that they want to tear this down?
CURWOOD: While some say the buildings should be recycled, others say returning the site to nature is more important.
ALEXANDER: The Presidio is a world class place. We ought to be using it for world class purposes. We weaken that argument if we just turn it into an easy solution for the city of San Francisco's social or other problems.
CURWOOD: The debate over the Presidio and more this week on Living on Earth, but first, news.
(NPR NEWS RAN HERE)
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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood with an encore edition of Living On Earth.
Last week, we reported on a controversy at the former military base in San Francisco called the Presidio. The Presidio, which has just become a national park, eventually has to wean itself off of government funding. And there are concerns that the scramble for dollars may compromise the park's mission. Now, there's more to the story. It concerns a cluster of abandoned military housing units at the Presidio. A plan to tear down the buildings has drawn protests from advocates for the city's large homeless population. And it sparked a battle between them and some Bay Area environmental activists. Living on Earth's Peter Thomson has our report.
(Footfalls. A woman speaks about troops)
THOMSON: Bernie Galvin is excited. She's trespassing on Federal property, and she's about to enter one of San Francisco's rarest places: a vacant apartment.
GALVIN: Solid oak floors. Hardwood floors. Two big hall closets. Tiled bathroom.
THOMSON: Bernie Galvin isn't a realtor hoping for a big commission. She's Sister Bernie Galvin, a Catholic nun and an advocate for San Francisco's homeless. And this flat isn't even on the market. Sister Bernie is here to draw attention to its planned fate.
GALVIN: When you think about families living under freeways right now, isn't it incredible that they want to tear this down?
THOMSON: In a city with one of the tightest housing markets in the country and more than 10,000 homeless people, Sister Bernie is appalled that this apartment and the 465 other units in this modest subdivision are destined for demolition. In fact, several buildings have already been torn down, sparking protests in which the diminutive nun in jeans and an open collar shirt has been arrested 4 times. Sister Bernie wants the apartments to be used as housing for homeless and low income families. The problem is that the houses are in the Presidio, a former Army base at the northwest corner of San Francisco that's now a national park. It's prime real estate high on a hillside with a spectacular view of the Pacific.
(A window opens; fade to wind)
THOMSON: Opening a west-facing window, the scent and sound of the ocean rush in.
GALVIN: That's part of the reason that they don't want homeless people here. It's considered to be too good for poor people.
(Wind and waves sound)
THOMSON: The US Park Service took over the Presidio 2 years ago with the plan to restore this area, along with hundreds of other acres of forests, hills, and beaches here, to its natural state.
O'NEILL: This is one of the most significant areas of the Presidio in terms of historically the native plant communities that were there, and the proposal and the plan proposes to restore this 75-acre area.
THOMSON: Brian O'Neill is the superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. He recites a litany of other reasons why the 40-year-old houses should be demolished. They have no historic or aesthetic value, he says, and they weren't built to last.
O'NEILL: In doing our analysis of that housing, the life cycle cost of that housing did not make it economically feasible for its reuse.
THOMSON: After years of discussions, a plan to remove the housing and restore the natural habitat has gained broad support in the Bay Area, especially among environmentalists.
THOMSON: Michael Alexander lives and works above the cable cars on San Francisco's fashionable Nob Hill, in a spacious apartment with a panoramic view of the Bay. He doesn't need to worry about housing, although he realizes that others do.
ALEXANDER: In the San Francisco Bay area, it is always a very difficult issue to talk about removing any housing whatsoever.
THOMSON: But Mr. Alexander, who chairs the Sierra Club's Task Force on the Presidio, says the park is the wrong place for low-income housing. The Presidio is a time capsule of the region's natural and social history. It embraces the entire southern rim of the dramatic Golden Gate, with its rugged hillsides plunging hundreds of feet into the Pacific. And it boasts historical treasures from the time of Spanish control, through the Civil War and the 2 World Wars. Mr. Alexander says Presidio supporters worked hard to convince Congress that it's valuable to the nation and the world, not just to San Francisco.
ALEXANDER: We weaken that argument if we just turn it into an easy solution for the city of San Francisco's social or other problems. We need to -- I think we need to be thinking bigger than that. The Presidio is a world-class place. We ought to be using it for world-class purposes.
THOMSON: But for people like Arlee Peters, the highest purpose which a small corner of the Presidio could serve is shelter for the poor.
PETERS: A place for people who don't have any money, a place for them to live. It means their sanity, it means their health, it means their life.
(Ambient street noises)
THOMSON: Arlee Peters is a veteran who's been on and off San Francisco's streets for 6 years. He lives here in the Tenderloin District, where each day hundreds of the city's homeless eat in soup kitchens and sleep in doorways. He recently joined the campaign to save the Presidio apartments.
PETERS: We're going to tear down the houses that's already built, that's already been paid by the taxpayers over the years, already been used by the people. Let's see if that makes logic. Let's see if that makes decent sense.
THOMSON: Homeless activists say they see a cruel irony developing. Under an edict from Congress, the Presidio will have to pay all of its own expenses within 15 years. To do that the park will rent out many of its other former military buildings to businesses and nonprofit groups and their employees. That means that middle class and wealthy people will be allowed to live in the Presidio, but poor people may not. Supporters of the plan to remove the houses say their motives aren't selfish. They say it's just an especially difficult case of conflicting needs for the same piece of land. But some environmentalists don't see a conflict. Carl Anthony has been an advocate for economic and environmental justice in San Francisco as head of the Earth Island Institute, and he's long been involved in Presidio planning.
ANTHONY: The notion of tearing down $80 million worth of buildings in order to restore it to its original grasslands while we have 100 people dying from hypothermia in San Francisco, while we're also asking to protect our ancient forests from being torn down, is conceptually, in my view, contradictory to the basic premise of the environmental movement, which is to recycle what you have, and to use it wisely.
THOMSON: Mr. Anthony supports a solution which he says could meet some of the needs of both sides. Let the city or an independent agency lease the complex, with a promise to tear it down and restore the habitat some time in the future. In the meantime, low-income families could rent the apartments, and the Presidio would get badly-needed income now to pay for restoration elsewhere in the park. Michael Alexander of the Sierra Club suggests another solution.
ALEXANDER: Does the housing need to be where it is now?
THOMSON: So you're suggesting that it's possible that this housing could end up someplace else.
ALEXANDER: Well, it's possible. I think, you know, it would certainly be worth taking a look at.
THOMSON: The Park Service says moving the buildings to another spot may be a feasible alternative. And the idea of leaving the houses in place and leasing them from the park has been getting serious attention as well. San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown recently endorsed the leasing plan and promised to push hard for it.
GALVIN: You see this? They've got this in every house, ha, -- not even a nail, I can't pull it out; it's a screw.
THOMSON: So they've screwed them shut where the locks have been broken.
GALVIN: Yeah. Yeah.
THOMSON: After more than a year of demonstrations, the battle over the Presidio housing appears to be moving into a period of negotiation. But the issue probably won't be settled soon. So for now, the site will sit vacant, occupied neither by needy people nor by native plants and animals. Park managers aren't likely to tear the houses down in the absence of a new agreement, but if they do, Sister Bernie Galvin says homeless activists will be ready.
GALVIN: When there's a bulldozer that shows up, there are going to be plenty of us right in front of that bulldozer.
THOMSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Peter Thomson in San Francisco.
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CURWOOD: The tools of ace animal detectives. That's just ahead right here on Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
Murder, rape and robbery have been on the decline recently, but officials report that one category of violent crime hasn't gone down, crimes against wildlife. Illegal hunting is a major problem in the United States. So is the black market trade in exotic pets and the importation of products made from endangered species. The problem is so severe, officials have turned to the high-tech tools of human crime fighting to catch poachers and smugglers. They've built a forensic laboratory that's so sophisticated, it's been dubbed the Scotland Yard of wildlife law enforcement. Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick spent a day at the lab in Ashland, Oregon.
(Creaking, fans. Voice: "This is lab item one dash zero one. Our species is Inca dove, age adult. Weight is 48 grams...")
FITZ PATRICK: Veterinarian Rhoda Ralston is preparing for a grim experience in the battle against wildlife crime. Before her on a stainless steel table are the bodies of 5 small doves that died mysteriously. Dr. Ralston must determine what killed them.
(Small motorized sounds)
FITZ PATRICK: The process begins with X-rays and photographs. Then, with surgical scissors and a scalpel, Dr. Ralston cuts through the delicate feathers of one bird to examine its internal organs.
Does this work get to you?
RALSTON: In a way it does, as far as you're seeing the dead animals. I guess I was just naive and was ignorant to what goes on out there.
FITZ PATRICK: This autopsy uncovers the cause of death when Dr. Ralston slits open the dove's throat. It's packed with tiny green pellets that the bird has eaten.
RALSTON: Preliminary diagnosis is suspected poisoning, strychnine.
FITZ PATRICK: Before the US Fish and Wildlife Service opened this lab 8 years ago, field agents lacked the scientific expertise to solve a crime like this. To make an arrest, agents had to catch a criminal in the act. Now, they can build a case by collecting physical evidence that links a suspect to the scene of the crime. State and Federal agents from around the country send the evidence here for analysis. The cases cover everything from mischievous teenagers who've killed a hawk to an angry rancher that stalked and shot a wolf. In incidents like these, investigators often find mangled feathers or a bloody clump of fur in the woods. Poachers are notorious for leaving clues behind, unaware that wildlife agents now employ the same tools that homicide detectives use to solve a murder.
(Metallic sounds, or broken glass)
The forensic lab has gotten so good it can crack a case with a drop of blood from a hunting knife. This kind of analysis isn't easy. Geneticists like Peter Dratch can spend days trying to prove that the victim was a protected animal.
DRATCH: We don't just deal with one species as they do in other crime labs, where they're basically dealing with human blood most of the time. Our job is to actually determine species.
(A buzzing sound)
FITZ PATRICK: To make that determination, the lab has collected 20,000 blood and tissue samples from around the world. They're kept in a freezer at 65 degrees below zero.
(Scooping sounds, buzzing in background)
FITZ PATRICK: These specimens allow Dr. Dratch to identify the protein and genetic signature of evidence sent to the lab. He can even tell if it comes from a male or a female.
DRATCH: And the reason why gender is important is because there are different laws for shooting males and females, bucks and does, or bulls and cows in the case of elk. And so very often a law can be broken because somebody has shot an animal of the wrong sex.
FITZ PATRICK: Dr. Dratch can determine if meat found in a hunter's home comes from a protected species. And with DNA testing, he can match the blood from a hunter's clothing or boots to a carcass left behind in the woods. This laboratory is the only facility of its type in the world, dedicated exclusively to solving wildlife crime. The 28 staffers here are constantly developing new techniques and equipment for a discipline that didn't exist just a decade ago. Some scientists like Mary Jack Mann feel it's more rewarding to solve crimes against animals than crimes against people.
MANN: For 6 years I worked homicides and really nasty crimes that humans do to humans. And more often than not, these were relationship battles of some kind or another. You took my woman. You took my money. But the animals out there are truly victims. They are truly blameless. They're not asking to have a violent act perpetrated upon them.
FITZ PATRICK: Throughout the lab, you see evidence of humanity's mistreatment of wildlife.
(A latch clicks)
FITZ PATRICK: Chief Scientist Ed Espinoza brings visitors to a warehouse packed to the ceiling with thousands of items.
ESPINOZA: One doesn't realize how many items are used from wildlife for decor or for personal use until you see this kind of stuff.
FITZ PATRICK: There's a stool made from the foot of an elephant. Shoes made from python or cobra skin. Asian medicines made with tiger bone, rhino horn, and the gall bladders of bears.
(A stringed instrument plays)
FITZ PATRICK: There are even musical instruments.
ESPINOZA: We have a guitar made from the shell of a sea turtle.
(Knocks on shell, strums)
FITZ PATRICK: These items were seized by customs inspectors under a treaty that bans importation of anything made from an endangered species. Scientists like Dr. Espinoza verify the object is illegal so the customs service can bring a suspect to trial.
FITZ PATRICK: Back in the autopsy room, work continues on those 5 poisoned doves.
RALSTON: The heart is normal. The liver is pale and friable.
FITZ PATRICK: Field agents in the state where these birds were found will determine if the poisoning was intentional or an accident. But without a proper autopsy here, they'd never have the option to prosecute.
(A camera shutter whiirs, takes photographs)
FITZ PATRICK: The work is tedious and it's easy to see how this single lab has been overwhelmed by the endless flood of bears and eagles and other dead animals shipped here for analysis. Their bodies are piling up in freezers. There is a 4-month backlog of cases. It's also easy to see why the people here, many of whom built their careers working with live animals, consider this work to be so important.
RALSTON: Even though I'm working with dead animals, it's a much more fulfilling thing as far as knowing that I'm doing something for critters that are really unable to protect themselves.
FITZ PATRICK: Dr. Rhoda Ralston of the National Fish and Wildlife Forensic Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon. For Living on Earth, I'm Terry FitzPatrick reporting.
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CURWOOD: The discovery of dead animals put Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery in hot pursuit of an unidentified culprit. It all began early one Friday morning, when Sy and her husband went to feed and water their 8 chickens and found only 2 of them alive.
MONTGOMERY: They perched as if shellshocked over a scene of struggle and panic. Black and white bodies lay in piles of feathers, throats slashed. The feeder and water had been knocked over. From the position of the bodies, we could see one chicken had desperately tried to hide beneath a nest box. Another had tried to shield her neck by wedging it into a corner. In the past we'd lost members of the flock to foxes, skunks, dogs -- but we had never seen carnage like this.
A thin trail of blood led from a busted open little hatch door and over the snow. The culprit's tracks had been erased by the feathers of the victim as the body dragged behind. But even without tracks, we knew it must have been some weasel. A fisher, perhaps. We had known and loved these chickens since they'd been a day old, still shaped like eggs. The first few weeks of their lives they lived in my office. They were smart. They were free-ranging and they knew about predators. After a fox had carried off one of the flock last summer, 2 of the chickens insisted on roosting in trees all summer and deep into the fall.
That winter, afraid their combs would freeze, my husband and I finally convinced them it was safe to sleep in their coop. But we were wrong. They were right. The weasel, or whatever it was, was probably still around. So even though we would otherwise have let them spend the day free, we closed up the broken door real tight, thinking the survivors would be safer there. Again, we were wrong. The predator came back, not through the broken door but tunneled through the dirt. It killed the survivors before sundown.
We were too demoralized to even move the bodies that night. The next morning, early, we woke to a fresh snow. I went out to the chicken coop. And there in the gathering flakes were prints so fresh and perfect Scotland Yard would have loved them. Each of the 5 toes showed in perfect detail including the imprint of the nails. In the snow we could see the creature's grace and its joy. It had bounded playfully in the new snow from the barn yard into the woods. It had tunneled under fallen logs, skirted tree trunks, cleared a low stone wall. Finally, it came to the brook, slipped beneath the break in the ice, and swam away. It was a mink.
Later that day I retrieved the bodies of the last 2 chickens who I had loved. I couldn't begrudge the mink its appetites. I lay the bodies at the edge of the water, where the mink's tracks had disappeared: an offering on the altar of nature's mystery, where beauty and cruelty twine tight.
CURWOOD: Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery comes to us courtesy of New Hampshire Public Radio in Concord.
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It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
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CURWOOD: God, the Earth, and Judaism. That story is just ahead on Living on Earth.
SECOND HALF HOUR
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood
The words funny and environmental are seldom seen in each other's company. It's almost as though they're ashamed of each other. With that in mind we would like to take note of that rare bird: The funny nature writer. Sixty-six years ago, Will Cuppy published How To Tell Your Friends From The Apes, the first book of his humorous trilogy on natural history. In the second book of the series, How To Become Exctinct , Cuppy wrote: "The Dodo never had a chance. He seems to have been invented for the sole purpose of becoming extinct and that was all he was good for." Will Cuppy was born in Indiana in 1884, and lived much of his life as a hermit on the then-undeveloped Jones Beach of New York. His writing appeared in The New York Herald Tribune, The New Yorker and The Saturday Evening Post. The success of the third book in the trilogy, How To Attract The Wombat, got him a short-lived program on NBC radio where he discussed his pet peeves which included everything from parrots to tripe to fried bananas to the classification of bats as mammals. Will Cuppy died in 1949, a suicide. Ironically, the following year his most successful book was published. The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody. In it, Mr. Cuppy tells you all the stuff that doesn't get included in most history books, including the fact that every time Hannibal used his elephants in battle he lost. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.
CURWOOD: During the season of Passover, people of the Jewish faith celebrate their ancestral journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. But some Jews say that journey isn't over, and won't be until the Earth itself is freed from the bondage of ecological abuse, and humans return to the Promised Land of living in harmony with Nature. Richard Schiffman reports on the emerging environmental theme in Jewish theology.
RABBI: Speak for the redwood and the rock.
CONGREGATION: Speak for the redwood and the rock.
RABBI: Speak for the lion and the beetle.
CONGREGATION: Speak for the lion and the beetle.
SCHIFFMAN: It's raining in the Headwaters Forest of northern California, but that hasn't prevented over 250 people from gathering here to share a Seder. The ritual meal is meant both to celebrate the beauty of this ancient redwood grove and to protest the plans of the Texas-based Maxxam Corporation to cut it down.
STEINBERG: In the last 10 years we've seen reckless disregard for the natural world.
SCHIFFMAN: Seder organizer Naomi Steinberg is the student rabbi at the B'nai Haretz, or Children of the Earth, a congregation in Garberville, California, with a long history of environmental activism.
STEINBERG: Our immigrant grandparents didn't slave in sweatshops to see us become profiteers and despoilers of the land. This is to my mind acting like a pharaoh. This is not the model we want to offer to our children; we want to offer to our children a model of escaping from slavery, not so that we can take over the power and become pharaohs, but so that we can truly arrive at a Promised Land of balance, of harmony, and reverence for the Earth.
CROWD (singing): A tree of life she is, for all who hold her close. A tree of life for Shalom! A tree of life for Shalom!
SCHIFFMAN: At the climax of today's Seder they plant 100 saplings on timber company land, as a gentle act of civil disobedience.
STEINBERG: There's a tradition, a Jewish tradition which says that if you were holding a sapling in your hand and about to plant it, and if the Messiah were to arrive, you would finish the job of planting the sapling before you would rush to greet the Messiah. That's how important is our relationship to trees.
SCHIFFMAN: In the Biblical book of Job are the words, "Speak to the Earth and it will teach you." The Hebrew prophets felt God speak to them in the rootedness of trees, in the fury of storms, and in cold springs welling out of desert stone. Many contemporary Jews also look to the natural world for inspiration. Amongst them, a group of scholars at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.
MAN: Why is nature sacred?
SCHORSCH: It is an extension of God. I then take from Eliezer's talk last night and from what you say that the Jewish response to the questions in the environment is modesty...
SCHIFFMAN: Once a month, Chancellor Izmar Schorsch and half a dozen colleagues meet to ponder the links between their religious faith and concern for the environment.
SCHORSCH: Religion takes us out of ourselves. It makes us aware that we are part of human society. We are part of nature. We are part of God.
SCHIFFMAN: The science of ecology also teaches that we're part of something greater than ourselves, the chancellor adds. Science informs the mind, he says, while religion educates the heart. It makes us aware that life is holy, and we need to preserve it.
SCHORSCH: Religion has the vocabulary to make this an emotional issue, to translate our scientific knowledge into religious values and symbols and metaphors that can prompt us to change our behavior.
CROWD: (sings ya-da-da-yi; clanking sounds)
SCHIFFMAN: In particular, Jewish environmentalists point to the Sabbath, called in Hebrew Shabbat, being welcomed here at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in downtown Manhattan. On Shabbat, observant Jews refrain from doing acts that alter the physical world. Mark Jacobs says this puts a break on the human impulse to dominate nature. Jacobs directs the Coalition for the Environment in Jewish life.
JACOBS: What we are experiencing in the world today is a sense of humanity having complete control over the world in which we live and having the right to exploit it at all times. Shabbat says that we have to make a break in that. Shabbat provides a balance to our experience as transformers of the world.
SCHIFFMAN: Mark Jacobs also cites an ancient agricultural law that every seventh year a field should be allowed to remain fallow, as an example of Jewish ecological wisdom. But not everyone is convinced that Judaism is quite so eco-friendly. Some critics read the injunction to multiply and subdue the Earth in the book of Genesis in the Bible as a license to exploit nature. And they blame this attitude for the excesses of our industrial society. Professor Eliezer Diamond disagrees.
DIAMOND: I don't think the Bible says that, and I think it's time to read it again and to read it more fairly and I think accurately, and to see that we're talking about stewardship and not tyranny.
SCHIFFMAN: Still, some ecologically-minded Jews object to Biblical language. Marcia Falk is a poet and a highly original translator of Hebrew texts. She says there's a need for a new spiritual vocabulary, one that expresses a less hierarchical view of Creation than the tradition one in which, she says...
FALK: God is at the top. Men, particular white men in European tradition, follow next. After that come women and then children and then the animals and the plants and on down to the rocks and the pebbles. I think that's a very problematic model, and I think it's time to consider other models, more horizontal models. We need to find a way to see the Divine in all of creation and tend to it there, and see ourselves as a part of that Divine.
CROWD (singing): Sh'ma Yisroel Ya Elohenu Ya Echod.
SCHIFFMAN: Marsha Falk has composed material for a new Earth-affirming liturgy. At Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the worshippers recite the poet's controversial English version of the Sh'ma, Judaism's fundamental statement of faith.
CONGREGATION (reciting): Loving life and its mysterious source with all our heart and all our spirit, all our senses and strength, we take upon ourselves and into ourselves these promises. To care for the Earth and those who live upon it. To pursue justice and peace...
SCHIFFMAN: With this vow, to care for the Earth, and with its many images from Nature, Marcia Falk's liturgy celebrates the sacredness of the world. Some Jews have criticized her work, which speaks of God only indirectly through symbols and metaphors derived from Nature. But one of today's worshippers says the rich natural imagery made her feel connected to the service in a whole new way.
WOMAN: For me, when I'm out in Nature, when I'm riding my bicycle, when I'm walking on the beach, you know, that's when I become very aware of God. She was sort of injecting that in her language, in the prayers. And that sort of like let me relax, it let me connect with something that makes me feel spiritual.
SCHIFFMAN: Judaism puts supreme value on language and learning. Nowadays, that love for learning has been extended to environmental education, which is being introduced from a Jewish angle into many schools and synagogues. Some groups are going outdoors for their lessons.
(Voices, footfalls. Man: "Has anyone ever been here before?" Man 2: "Yeah." Man 3: "I have, millions of times." Man: "A bunch of times?" Man 3: "Yeah.")
SCHIFFMAN: A dozen Jewish college students hike the mountains north of New York City to learn about Tu B'ishvat, the late winter festival of the trees.
CROWD: Baruch atah Adonai elohenu melech ha'olam, boray etsee v'samim.
SCHIFFMAN: They're saying the Hebrew blessing for fragrant plants over a black birch, a tree once used to make root beer.
FENEBESI: So that's one of the things hopefully we'll be doing today, getting to say some of these blessings that are really connecting us to the outside world.
SCHIFFMAN: This is just one of hundreds of prayers that Jews were once enjoined to say when they came across features of the natural world like rivers, rainbows, and fruit trees. Hikeleader/environmental educator Shumu Fenebesi would like to see this custom revived. saying these blessings, he says, makes us more aware of the world around us, and grateful for its gifts.
FENEBESI: In Judaism, if you enjoy anything in this world, the benefit of anything in this world without saying a blessing, you're considered a thief. And that's a quote from the Talmud. We can't take anything for granted; we have to always give thanks and we always have to be aware of what we're taking from the world, whether that's a piece of fruit or 10,000 board feet of pine.
SCHIFFMAN: As we grow to revere God's creation, Shumu Fenebesi believes, we're less likely to waste limited natural resources through overconsumption. Spiritual values, he says, have practical consequences.
FENEBESI: We can talk as much as we want about it, but in the end it's what we buy, how we eat, how we choose to live our lives. And Judaism very much brings the spiritual down to that practical level, and applies it to everyday living.
SCHIFFMAN: Ancient Jewish books speak of the need for Tikkun Olam: the repair and healing of the Earth. Jewish environmentalists believe that this healing will take place when we return to a deep spiritual awareness of, and love for, the natural world.
FENEBESI: Let's walk silently for a little bit.
SCHIFFMAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Schiffman.
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CURWOOD: He went into the Amazon in search of medicinal plants and emerged 12 years later to become the father of ethno-botany. The story of Professor Richard Schultes is coming up on Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: Most botanists would consider it the apex of their career to discover a single new plant species. That said, consider Richard Schultes. He uncovered 300 new species, and that's just a small part of the achievements of this legendary Harvard botanist. The early career of Professor Schultes makes Indiana Jones look like a bookworm. Starting in the 1930s, he did pioneering work in the peyote cult among Southwestern Indian tribes. But he is best known for his explorations in the Amazon. He survived innumerable perils there to collect more than 27,000 specimens and create the field of ethno-botany, the study of the interaction of human societies and the plant world. Wade Davis, one of Professor Schultes' former students, has written a book about the professor and his students, called One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rainforest. He told me that Professor Schultes began his career almost by accident, with a homework assignment at Harvard.
DAVIS: In that course at one point Schultes had to do a book review. And in order to do his homework, he raced to the back of the room, grabbed the thinnest book he possibly could off the shelf, simply because he had so much other homework, took it back to his home in East Boston where he read throughout the night these rather extraordinary passages. Because this book he had happened quite accidentally to select turned out to be the only monograph that was then available in the English language that described the stunning pharmacological effects of peyote. And as he read through the night of these visions of orb-like brilliance, he became completely enamored of the intellectual questions that this plant provoked. And he went to his professor the next day and he said, simply, "Professor, I must know about this plant." And his professor, who was a famous orchid specialist, Oaks Ames, said to him, "That's fine, young Richard, but if you want to know this plant you can't simply read about it. You must live it." And that's how this young kid from East Boston, who had never been west of the Hudson River, ended up pounding over the dusty roads of Tennessee in the summer of 1936, destined for the Kaiwa Reservation of Oklahoma where, with the road men of the peyote cult, this young boy from East Boston would eat peyote 3 and 4 times a week for 8 weeks of his young life.
CURWOOD: How do you think that changed him?
DAVIS: I think he became completely captivated by the possibility of the Other, you know, the possibility that there were worlds outside his own imagination. And that there are people who love their plants and understood their plants in a way that he had never come to appreciate. And certainly in a way that he was not being taught at Harvard.
CURWOOD: You know, it probably is impossible for you to answer this question without telling me the whole substance of your book. But when he went down to the Amazon to start looking at the hallucinogens there, he stayed for 12 years. What did he do for those 12 years?
DAVIS: Well you know, he began, of course, not looking for hallucinogens per se but to study medicinal plants for the National Research Council. He had a Guggenheim Fellowship. And he was initially interested in identifying the botanical sources of curare, the famous "flying death," which had a drug in it which had been just recently discovered to be extremely useful in modern surgery. Schultes actually found himself, after this extraordinary period of time in the forest, where he'd had malaria countless times -- he found himself at the headwaters of the Rio Wyneo, which is the headwaters of the Rio Negro one morning when he -- his fingertips began to feel numb -- and he thought it was the formaldehyde he was pressing his specimens with. But then his toes began to be numb. And he realized that he was coming down with beri beri. Now the only treatment for beri beri, which is a very serious disease, which can kill you, is injections of thiamine. And to get those he needed to get to a pharmacy. And needless to say, he was a long way from a pharmacy. He was several hundred miles, in fact he was 1,500 miles or more. And he came downriver. He met a mission post where a missionary had saved his life once and had an idea that [he] could do it again. Instead of going all the way down to Manaus, 800 miles, there was the suggestion he could go a couple hundred miles upriver into Colombia and get to a remote military post. And so he immediately left for upriver, but the problem is the missionary's geography was wrong, and so it wasn't 3 days upriver, it was a week and a half. It wasn't a day over a portage, it was 7 days on feet that felt like stumps. And by the time he got to this military post, he was completely exhausted: no food, no water. And he looked up at the landing and he said to the corporal of the Colombian Army, he said, "When's the next plane for Bogota?" And the corporal began to laugh and he asked again and the corporal just said 2 words, "La violencia," which is a term for the civil war that had wracked Colombia in the 17 months that Schultes had been upriver. There hadn't been a plane to that depot in 6 months; there wasn't one expected in 6 months. Schultes had gone 400 miles out of his way only to be that much further from where he could get rescued.
CURWOOD: Uh oh.
DAVIS: He immediately turned around and had, in a dugout canoe, to travel something like 1,200 miles downriver to Manaus. By the time he got to Manaus he had to be carried off the dock in a hammock. But before passing out he spotted an empty vessel belonging to the American Chiclet Company. His last words before passing out were, "Hire that boat." And you would have thought that after 17 months in the jungle, with beri beri, countless episodes of malaria, he might have, like, rested for a few days in Manaus. He stayed for 3 days, just long enough to get a supply of vitamins, enough syringes to shoot himself up for the next month and a half, and he left on that boat. That gives you some sense of the man we've been talking about.
CURWOOD: Professor Schultes inspired several generations of students, yourself included, to go out into the field and try various plants, to try to understand them and the effect they have on people. What happened to you when you took this super-hallucinogen, the iowasca?
DAVIS: Well, one of the kind of odd parts of the sort of the '60s drug culture was this sort of narcissism or this sort of the sense that somehow these substances all were supposed to be pleasant. Well, yahe, or iowasca, is many things, but pleasant isn't among them.
CURWOOD: (Laughs) I see.
DAVIS: What I find is that the imbibing of this substance sends you into a realm beyond your imaginings where the world no longer exists but the world in which we are born appears almost be a crude and opaque facsimile of another world, which is a world that is quite horrific in a certain sense. And of course, when the shamans speak of facing down the jaguar, it's because they really do.
CURWOOD: So, it was terrifying in other words.
DAVIS: Absolutely terrifying. Of course, that's the whole purpose of it. It's -- you know, who said that messing around with God was supposed to be pleasant?
CURWOOD: I'm wondering -- don't you think that was a rather risky affair?
DAVIS: In what sense?
CURWOOD: Well, you never know what happens if you take a substance. Might kill you.
DAVIS: Most of these substances are relatively non-toxic. And you know, Schultes wasn't sending us out there, you know, quote unquote, to get high, any more than he had gone to the forest to get high. He sent us there because he understood that ethno-botany was a perfect conduit to culture, and because in his heart he understood that the loss of cultural diversity was a parallel process to the loss of biological diversity--and in some sense the terrible and tragic hallmark of the 20th century.
CURWOOD: So much has changed since Schultes first went into the Amazon. Western culture just keeps to be moving further and further into the rainforest. Would it be possible to do today what Schultes did 40 years ago?
DAVIS: No, and I guess that's probably the most profound question you could ask, Steve, because this is sort of the bittersweet element, both of Schultes' story and of course of the book. Which is that, you know, the rate of change is -- I've always thought that people living through a period of history are never aware of the kind of currents that are flowing beneath them. And one of the things we just don't realize too often is how fast things are changing. You know, let me give you one example. At one point there were probably 15,000 languages spoken on the planet, each one, you know, a unique manifestation of the human soul. Each one in some sense a flash of the human spirit. Today there are probably 6,500 languages spoken, and in another century, linguists tell us, there will only be 350. So this kind of condensation which is of such concern to linguists is also paralleled in so many ways in the condensation to monoculture and to the destruction of biological and cultural diversity. He still was able to live and be with many different cultures among whom he lived almost as the first outsider they'd ever seen. And this kind of -- is a moment of innocence which will never again be possible.
CURWOOD: Well I want to thank you for taking this time with us. Wade Davis is author of One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rainforest. Thank you, sir.
DAVIS: Thank you.
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CURWOOD: Brazil has the Amazon; and 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 an afternoon this past summer.
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: And for this week, that’s Living On Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production team includes: Jesse Wegman, Daniel Grossman, George Homsy and Liz Lempert, Peter Christianson, Roberta de Avila, Peter Shaw and Julia Madeson. Kim Motyleweski is our associate editor. Peter Thomson heads our western Bureau. Chris Ballman is the senior producer, and our technical director is Eileen Bolinsky. Michael Aharon composed the theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.
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