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

August 13, 1999

Air Date: August 13, 1999


Geese Police! / Terry FitzPatrick

At the turn of the century, Canada Geese were extremely rare. But today they're thriving, to the point of being considered a nuisance. As Living On Earth’s Terry FitzPatrick reports from Seattle, some of the extraordinary steps which officials take to control the birds' population raise important questions about the value people place on urban wildlife. (10:45)

Central Park Hawks

New Yorkers are marveling at the pair of red-tailed hawks which set up housekeeping just above the 12th floor window of a fancy Central Park apartment building. Marie Winn, who writes about nature for the Wall Street Journal, discusses her book, Red Tails in Love, with host Steve Curwood. (07:05)

All Fleas Considered / Virginia Shepherd

Commentator Virginia Shepherd reflects on her environmental education which dictated that she value all biodiversity, even fleas. (02:30)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about ... the nation’s symbol of forest fire prevention, Smokey the Bear. (01:30)

The Thirst for Safe Water: Pesticides in Drinking Water / Brenda Tremblay

Much of the billion pounds of pesticides which farmers apply to crops annually runs off the soil into rivers and streams that provide drinking water. Costly big city treatment plants often filter the chemicals out before they reach homes, but millions of Americans living in smaller communities consume potentially dangerous levels of pesticides in their drinking water. Brenda Tremblay prepared this report, the second in our series of four. (13:00)

Mountain Home, With John Elder

In the Green Mountains just above Bristol, Vermont, the notion of home and the wild meet. Once celebrated in the poetry of Robert Frost, the re-forested hills of Vermont have found a new voice in writer John Elder and his book "Reading the Mountains of Home." (11:00)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Terry FitzPatrick, Brenda Tremblay
GUESTS: Marie Winn, John Elder
COMMENTATOR: Virginia Shepherd

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Canadian geese don't belong just to Canada any more. In many American cities, the honkers have become year-round residents, prompting local officials to call out the dogs to control the burgeoning fowl numbers.

KALNOSKI: The geese have no idea they're perfectly safe, they think my dogs are going to put them on the barbecue. In the goose's mind I make an area a high predation area. (Whistles)

CURWOOD: On patrol with the Geese Police. And reconsidering all God's creatures great and small.

SHEPHERD: Every night I find myself sitting on the floor, picking fleas off my dog, and exterminating each one by slow, soapy, death.

CURWOOD: Those stories, and look up! It's a bird, it's a plane. It's -- well, it's a bird in the heart of Gotham City. The hawks of Central Park this week on Living on Earth. First news.

Back to top

(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

Geese Police!

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood, with an encore edition of Living on Earth. At the turn of the century, Canada geese were extremely rare here in the United States, but today just look around. They're everywhere, thriving even in the middle of most US cities. In fact, geese are so common they're considered a nuisance. Some city officials are taking extraordinary steps to control the bird's population. As Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick reports from Seattle, it all raises important questions about the value people place on urban wildlife.

(A golf club hits a ball)

FITZPATRICK: It's a sunny afternoon at Seattle's Broadmoor Country Club. As golfers practice their tee shots, a pair of geese is looking to land.

(Golf clubs hitting balls backdropped by honking geese)

FITZPATRICK: It's time for the Geese Police.

(Clanking sounds)

KALNOSKI: Okay, boys, you ready? (A dog grunts) Yeah...

FITZPATRICK: Lynn Kalnoski unloads 2 sheep-herding dogs, whose mission in life is to scare geese away. Ms. Kalnoski says the dogs are trained to act like wolves, with one exception. They never bite.

KALNOSKI: The geese have no idea they're perfectly safe, they think my dogs are going to put them on the barbecue. In the goose's mind I make an area a high predation area.

(Whistles to dogs)

FITZPATRICK: Dog patrols are becoming more common as the number of urban geese continues to rise. With large grassy fields and open waterfront parks, cities provide a perfect environment for the birds. There are no natural predators or hunters to keep them in check. Harassment doesn't control the population, but causes the birds to shy away from areas where people don't want them.

(Footfalls; Kalnoski whistles)

FITZPATRICK: Up by the 17th green Ms. Kalnoski spots the pair of geese and orders her dogs into action.

KALNOSKI: Look, look. Get.

FITZPATRICK: The dogs dart away with incredible speed. (Kalnoski whistles) And through special whistle commands, Ms. Kalnoski instructs them to attack in a sweeping, circular pattern. (More whistles; honking geese) Just as the dogs reach the geese, the birds scramble into the air. It's over in seconds and the dogs are recalled.

(More honking, more whistles; panting dogs return.)

KALNOSKI: Yeah, boy. There you go, guys. There you go.

FITZPATRICK: The Geese Police patrol golf courses, private estates, and suburban lakefront parks because of the damage geese inflict on landscaping.

(Honking geese and splashing water)

FITZPATRICK: Mark Johnston is Parks Manager in Kirkland, Washington.

JOHNSTON: The geese will come down and they love manicured lawns. They eat the lawns and they will continue eating the lawns all the way down to dirt. They destroy lawns.

FITZPATRICK: Before dogs began patrolling, Mr. Johnston says his lakefront was overrun by geese. Their droppings transformed the beach into a minefield of manure.

JOHNSTON: Last year there were times where there was 150 to 175 birds here at this park. Each bird can produce 3 pounds of material a day. That is a tremendous quantity of material left. It wasn't fun to be at the beach. There are also problems with the possibility of health hazards in the water.


FITZPATRICK: The health risks include parasites that cause swimmers to get itchy skin, and a nutrient-rich aquatic environment where dangerous bacteria can blossom.


FITZPATRICK: There are safety concerns as well. Aggressive geese have attacked children and at airports geese get in the way of planes. In 1995 a military jet crashed in Alaska after hitting a flock during takeoff. (Honking geese) Twenty-four people were killed.

(Honking continues)

FITZPATRICK: Ironically, this seeming plague of geese was created by well- intentioned wildlife agencies. In the 1940s they began to reintroduce geese in rural areas to bring them back from the brink of extinction and provide opportunities for hunters.

(Honking continues)

FITZPATRICK: While they were at it, biologists placed geese in cities to grace the parks of urban America. Jim Cooper is a waterfowl biologist at the University of Minnesota.

COOPER: What folks in those days, and I'm one of them, didn't realize, because we had so few Canada geese around anyway, was that they were beautifully suited to the cities. It's far more adaptable and far more able to survive in situations that we couldn't imagine.

FITZPATRICK: In many American cities, the geese have become year-round residents, distinct from the flocks who nest in Canada each summer and fly to the United States for the winter. Dr. Cooper says that's because a goose migrates only if it has to.

COOPER: If the water that it uses for roosting at night and the food that it forages on in late fall and winter is unavailable, either through snow cover and ice and snow, the birds will migrate. But as long as their food and roosting needs are met, they will stay as close to their breeding site as possible.

FITZPATRICK: The artificial introduction of geese has created large populations of resident birds in the US. There's at least two million of them right now, and their numbers are growing fast. In areas where it's feasible, special hunting seasons have been established to control the resident birds. More than 300,000 are shot every year. The quandary is what to do in cities where you can shoo the geese away but can't shoot them.

(A boat engine starts)

YOUNG: Jerry, I think we have one to use last time...

FITZPATRICK: That's where Jeff Young and Jerry May come in.

(Boat engine)

FITZPATRICK: They're the grim reapers of the wildlife world, employed by a special unit of the US Department of Agriculture.

YOUNG: This a new one, Jerry?

FITZPATRICK: They spend every spring in a small motorboat raiding goose nests.

(Geese honking; crunching through foliage)

FITZPATRICK: Urban geese will nest just about anywhere, under bridges or piers or in clusters of cattails along shore.

(Honking, crunching continue)

FITZPATRICK: Disturbing the birds can be dangerous. They're very large and unafraid of people.

(Honking, crunching continue)

FITZPATRICK: As Mr. Young nudges this female off her nest, the male beats his wings in a furious, diving attack.

(Attacking, honking)

YOUNG: Hold on. This guy's not happy.

FITZPATRICK: Mr. Young wards off the attack and uncovers the nest. About 2 feet wide, made of broken reeds and downy feathers.

YOUNG: So here's 4 eggs. They're warm and white, about the size of my palm.

FITZPATRICK: Mr. Young does not destroy the eggs. Instead he uses a garden sprayer to cover the eggs with corn oil.

(Pumping sounds)

YOUNG: It imposes a nonpenetrable layer to the oxygen molecules that are required by an embryo for development. By coating the eggs we are inducing that layer and the embryo cannot reach full development.

(Honking continues)

FITZPATRICK: Oiling the eggs is a more effective birth control technique than destroying them. Mr. May says the geese will spend their entire breeding season trying to hatch the coated eggs.

YOUNG: If you do any physical damage, you break them, remove them, they will re-nest. This way they just keep on sitting on the nest. They don't know any different. I've had them sitting on the same nest 40 days past the time they were supposed to hatch, and they're still sitting there.

(Pumping spray)

FITZPATRICK: This team oils more than 1,000 eggs a year. It prevents the urban population from growing but does not reduce the number of birds already here. For that, officials have resorted to trapping and relocating tens of thousands of geese. In some regions they've simply slaughtered the birds and sent the meat to food kitchens; about 5,000 have been butchered nationwide in the past 3 years.

(Honking continues)

FITZPATRICK: Surprisingly, animal rights activists have endorsed the use of dog patrols and the poisoning of eggs. However, they say its wrong to kill living birds. The activists suggest cities try harder to prevent the geese from congregating in places where they'll pose a problem.

(A drill sounds)

FITZPATRICK: In Seattle, activists are addressing another factor that puts the geese in harm's way: handouts of food from bird lovers.

(Drilling continues)

FITZPATRICK: The Progressive Animal Welfare Society is posting startling signs depicting a dead goose with its tongue hanging out.

BELL: It says if you're going to feed me, you may as well shoot me. So thanks for the bread, but I'd rather live.

FITZPATRICK: Stephanie Bell and Mitchell Fox have put dozens of these warnings in Seattle-area parks.

FOX: What we need to impart is that the animals end up paying with their lives for this seemingly innocuous activity. I think it's just kind of unfair to whack off a bunch of geese because we've trained them to be our pets.

(Honking continues)

FITZPATRICK: The conflict over geese is likely to intensify as wildlife managers move forward with plans to kill large numbers of birds in several cities. Animal activists are fighting in Federal court, contending the law allows only limited kills of specific problem birds. Both sides acknowledge geese can become a nuisance, but they stress it's illegal for the public to kill them or disturb their nests. That, they say, is a job best left to the Geese Police.

(Honking continues)

FITZPATRICK: For Living on Earth, I'm Terry FitzPatrick in Seattle.

Back to top

(Honking, fade to music up and under)

CURWOOD: Birds of a feather that are a welcome sight in the big city. The hawks of Central Park are just ahead. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Central Park Hawks

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Okay, for wildlife in Manhattan you'd expect squirrels, robins, and maybe some enterprising raccoons. But consider the odds of spying a pair of nesting red-tailed hawks. Well, if you saunter over to Fifth Avenue along Central Park near 74th Street and you bring your binoculars, you can see the nest and maybe mom and dad hawk and their baby just above the 12th floor window of a fancy apartment building. Central Park is their hunting ground. After all, the park is prime bird-watching territory, being home to about 275 different species. But the showy and dramatic hawks get the most attention. The birds have even prompted a book by Wall Street Journal columnist Marie Winn. She writes about nature for the Journal, and she called her new book "Red Tails in Love." It's just out now in paperback. I asked her if it's the same family of hawks that comes each year to Fifth Avenue.

WINN: There's been one male, and he arrived in 1991 and he's been around ever since. So he's our main man, or as one of the regulars call him, His Guyness.

CURWOOD: Marie Winn, I've been out hawk watching, and I have to tell you that, you know, red tails aren't all that common to see and certainly I don't think I've ever seen any one near a city. At all. I mean, they're pretty shy birds. Do you have any explanation as to why these particular hawks are so willing to live in the city? I mean, right there on Fifth Avenue.

WINN: Well, red-tailed hawks appear to be a species that is on the increase and that are taking advantage of some of the circumstances of contemporary life that are damaging the chances of other birds.


WINN: And my story is a perfect example of this. Since this book has come out, or in fact, since the first column that told the story of these nesting red-tailed hawks on the building on Fifth Avenue, news has filtered out of several other such nests. This is a bird that in books of the past has been described just as you've said, as a shy bird, nests in the deep forest, in very rural areas. And as Arthur Cleveland Bent, a writer of the past, described, if you come anywhere near to a red tail nest it might even abandon the nest. Well, this ain't so for our birds that we've been watching. And it seems to be decreasingly so for red-tailed hawks in general.

CURWOOD: I guess the lure of those nice fat and juicy pigeons and those rotund rats down there is just too much for a red tail to pass up. It's good hunting, huh?

WINN: Oh, I think that's exactly the case.

CURWOOD: Maybe you remember a particular siting that you thought was just incredible.

WINN: I do remember one. This was one when I was sitting next to the statue of Hans Christian Anderson, which is right by what we call the Hawk Bench, where we spent all our hundreds and probably thousands of hours observing the red-tailed hawks nesting on Fifth Avenue and 74th Street. I was watching with my binoculars, and on the edge of the nest up there was the hero of my story, and all of a sudden he was gone and I would say 4 seconds later there was a tremendous commotion right by my foot. And he had spotted a rat and zoomed and caught it, and I just couldn't believe my eyes. There's this huge thing right by me, and he takes off for a branch right by me and proceeds to eviscerate it. And this was pretty far out.

CURWOOD: I guess so. Now, why would Central Park be such a popular place for birds? I mean, it's in the middle of this asphalt jungle, as you describe it. Why do birds want to come to New York City?

WINN: Well, just like there are residents of New York and there are lots of tourists in New York, we've got our resident birds and we've got our tourists. And actually, the tourists are the ones that make Central Park an officially great bird-watching spot.

CURWOOD: Officially great? I mean --

WINN: Officially great. There was a list by the well-known ornithologist Roger Pasquier that actually placed Central Park among the top 15 bird-watching spots in America, and that included Yosemite and Cape May and all sorts of very famous places.

CURWOOD: In your book you have one of the regular bird-watchers saying that the whole experience of watching the hawks following their daily trials was like being in love, in fact perhaps better than being in love. It seems that for some of you there in New York, these red-tailed hawks have become, well, an obsession. Can you say why people feel so strongly about these hawks?

WINN: I'm not sure I would say that it's better, but it is like being in love. There is an obsessive aspect to it. You -- you feel sort of lucky and privileged that this has happened to you. And certainly, we all felt this way. It just amazed us that we were able to get involved with these creatures that normally we would never, that are so other than we are. Normally, you'd have no entry into their lives, and all of a sudden we could see everything. We could see how they courted each other, how the male always brought the female a gift before they mated, and she accepted it, and without that gift uh uh, baby, back into the woods. (Curwood laughs.) I don't know. I like getting gifts, and it's not that I demand them, but there's something about this kind of behavior that I think one could compare. And being able to just comfortably sit there on our hawk bench and watch all this is just fantastic. You should come, Steve, come and watch with us. (Curwood laughs.)

CURWOOD: I will. The hawk bench is at what corner?

WINN: It's right by the model boat pond.


WINN: And on weekends there are people with telescopes, very eager to let people have a look. And the excitement is beginning since the 1998 red tails seem to have hatched, and by the beginning of June when they'll be ready to take their first flight, there's going to be hundreds and hundreds of people up there lining up for the telescopes and saying, "Oh my God, I don't believe this!" and et cetera, or "Oh wow!" or "C'est merveilleux!" In every language they express their disbelief and amazement.

CURWOOD: Marie Winn is a nature columnist with the Wall Street Journal. Her book is called Red Tails In Love. Thank you.

WINN: Thank you.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

All Fleas Considered

CURWOOD: Commentator Virginia Shepherd has been doing her best to try and kill off members of an insect species that live a little too close to home. And in the process, she's developed a new appreciation of all God's creatures big and small.

SHEPHERD: Every night I find myself sitting on the floor, picking fleas off my dog, and exterminating each one by slow, soapy, death. I have no love for fleas. As the dominant species on the planet, we love to play judge, jury, and 'executioner.' We decide whether an organism, be it flea, rattlesnake, or spotted owl, has the right to survive. But should we judge? Once, while I was on a biology trip in the Florida Keys, a young naturalist, calling himself "Cosmos X," introduced my 65-year-old biology professor to, "a tarantula." Miss Sprague nodded her gray head approvingly, as Cosmos X detailed his lady spider's natural history. Later, Miss Sprague pondered the oddness of the young man's "name," but never did she question his close association with 'an arachnid.' For Miss Sprague, nothing in the natural world was to be judged. All species shared in her affections equally. Most of us are not so generous. We squash a few bugs, drown a couple hundred fleas, and mash a few uninvited crickets. We only really get ourselves into trouble when we start believing in our 'most omnipotent' selves. We think we can live as richly and well without some species, when, really, we need them all. Every spring, Miss Sprague marched her students into the woods to gaze upon skunk cabbage and cardinal flower. Wearing stockings and sandals, and always a dress, she would bend over and peer into the underbrush. "How satisfactory!" she would exclaim. We'd seen them all the spring before, but it was as if with each rediscovery, Miss Sprague satisfied herself that all was right with the world again. Where there was life, there was still hope. That's what's missing, you know. We're short on hope, because we found we're not so good at tinkering with this old world, after all. Perhaps we should sit back, and learn to marvel at our world, instead. But it's not going to be easy. I, for one, am not at all sure I can, "Marvel at a flea!?" Oh, Miss Sprague, you've got to be kidding!

CURWOOD: Commentator Virginia Shepherd lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia. She comes to us via member station W-M-R-A.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

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

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com; and Church and Dwight, a tradition of environmental responsibility: the makers of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, the standard of purity.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Coming up: concerns about drinking water in the nation's farm belt. Pesticides put on crop lands are coming out of the spigots of many homes. Our series The Thirst for Safe Water continues in just a few minutes here on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)


ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Barrett Communications, transforming ideas into powerful marketing, communications, and design solutions: www.barrett.com.

(Theme music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: "Remember: only you can prevent forest fires." For 55 years now, Smokey the Bear has been delivering that message to forest visitors. Smokey first appeared on a Forest Service poster during World War II, when the war effort diverted resources away from fighting fires and prevention became more crucial. The Forest Service thought to rally the public behind the mascot. Their first choice was the fawn Bambi, but after heated debate, officials opted for a more rugged symbol, and Smokey was their bear. Although his image is fictional, there was a real Smokey. As a cub he was rescued from a New Mexico fire. Badly burned and motherless, Smokey was moved to the National Zoo in Washington, DC, where he became America's official wildlife prevention spokesbear until his death in 1975. But Smokey's image lives on. He is recognized throughout North America and even in Australia, a country which has no native bears but plenty of fires. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

The Thirst for Safe Water: Pesticides in Drinking Water

CURWOOD: Each year in the United States, farmers apply about one billion pounds of pesticides to their crops, and a lot of those pesticides will run off the soil and into rivers and streams that provide drinking water. Expensive big-city treatment plants often filter the chemicals out before they reach homes, but such facilities in many smaller towns lack that capability. So, every year, millions of Americans living in rural communities consume potentially dangerous levels of pesticides along with their drinking water. Brenda Tremblay prepared this report, for our series The Thirst for Safe Water.

(Fiddle music up and under)

TREMBLAY: At the Walters-Boone County Historical Museum near the Missouri River in central Missouri, it's meeting night for the Old Time Fiddle Club. About thirty people sit in a circle, swaying back and forth to the music as they play. After a few waltzes, a short, wiry man named Ivan Crane balances his guitar against the back of his chair and ambles out into the hallway toward the drinking fountain. He takes a long drink and then pauses in the entryway to watch the rain fall onto the parking lot outside.

CRANE: I used to work on the river when I was, oh, about sixteen, seventeen years old, and we used to drink water out of that river. Just go out and dip with a wooden keg and stir it down with alum and put ice in it, and we'd drink it.

(Music continues)

TREMBLAY: Mr. Crane says he probably wouldn't drink straight out of the river now because it's too polluted. But he still does drink river water. It's just that, like his neighbors, he depends on the local water treatment plant to remove the pollutants before the water gets to his tap. But it turns out that some pollutants may be getting through.

(Car door slams, footsteps in gravel, cat meows)

TREMBLAY: A few miles to the north, farmer Keith Schnare steps out of his pick-up truck and glares up at the gray and rainy sky.

(A dog barks)

SCHNARE: What you plan and what happens, Mother Nature sometimes don't follow the book. (Laughs)

TREMBLAY: It's officially spring, but it's still too cold for Mr. Schnare to sow his spring crops. When he can get to work, he'll plant corn, and then he'll apply a chemical called atrazine to his fields to prevent weeds from competing with the corn.

SCHNARE: So this is our spray rig that we use, and we just bought this rig this winter and it's a Patriot sprayer. Uh, the chemicals we don't pick up until needed. It's all ordered, it's all spoken for.

TREMBLAY: Mr. Schnare will use this sprayer to apply more than four thousand pounds of atrazine to his corn crop this year. Across the country, farmers apply more than forty-five million pounds of the chemical every spring. Atrazine is the most commonly-used herbicide in the U.S., and at certain levels it's known to cause a host of human health problems, including damage to the heart, lungs, kidneys, and even cancer.

(Creek sounds)

TREMBLAY: After Mr. Schnare sprays his fields, the spring rains will wash over his farm and rinse the atrazine and other agricultural chemicals into dozens of creeks and streams. Eventually, those streams flow into the Missouri River. On the bank of a creek along the way, researcher Bob Lersch is collecting water samples in a small wooden shed.

(Clinking bottles)

LERSCH: There's eight bottles in this rack, and we would then bring each of those back into our laboratory and filter those and then we have a way of extracting the herbicides out of the water and analyzing those.

TREMBLAY: Dr. Lersch is a soil scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. After conducting the same tests over and over again every year, he knows what to expect this spring.

LERSCH: After the farmers apply their chemicals in April and May, we'll see a huge spike in concentration at the watershed scale. Essentially we're looking at probably somewhere around a thousand-fold increase, and that will last for probably most of the months of May and June. As you get pulses of rain, the water washes off the field and comes into the creek.

(Creek flows)

TREMBLAY: Scientists call this annual event the "spring flush." It happens throughout the United States, everywhere pesticides are applied to fields, to lawns, and to roadsides. High concentrations of many chemicals flow into the streams and rivers which provide drinking water sources for places like Boone County. Most communities treat their water for organisms which cause disease, but many small agricultural towns can't afford to treat water for pesticides. So these chemicals are getting into people's tap water. A recent study by the Environmental Working Group found that in the Midwest alone, nearly three million people drank water that exceeded federal standards for atrazine and other chemicals for weeks at a time after spring planting.

MALEY: We do have significant concentrations of atrazine in many of our lakes and rivers in the springtime.

TREMBLAY: Randall Maley is an environmental specialist with the Missouri State Department of Health. He says that atrazine will start to show up in the Missouri river in April and it'll peak in June. Then the chemical will concentrate in reservoirs. But he's not worried about the health effects of spring flush.

MALEY: On an annual average most of those do not exceed the public drinking water standard, but for that short period you do have concentrations significantly higher than that.

TREMBLAY: Under federal standards, levels of atrazine and other pesticides in drinking water are not considered dangerous unless they exceed a certain average over the course of a year. Violations of annual standards are relatively uncommon, and short-term spikes aren't considered a big deal. But the Environmental Working Group thinks there could be a problem, both with short-term spikes and long-term exposure.

COHEN: In some ways we're doing a giant controlled experiment on a large part of the population in Midwestern America to see how sick they'll get if we have them drinking for years at a time tap water that's contaminated with up to ten different cancer-causing chemicals.

TREMBLAY: Brian Cohen is an analyst with the Environmental Working Group. His group and other researchers are primarily worried about cancer, but they are also concerned about more subtle effects, especially in groups which are more sensitive to chemicals, such as children and developing embryos. Dr. Jim Haynes is a biologist at the State University of New York in Brockport.

HAYNES: We're talking about certain kinds of chemicals that have the potential to alter some function of the endocrine system, which can effect reproduction, behavior, and the immune system. The kinds of effects we're talking about seem to be taking place at concentrations of chemicals that are ten to a thousand times lower than the concentrations that cause cancer.

TREMBLAY: Researchers like Dr. Haynes and Brian Cohen of the Environmental Working Group say Federal standards just aren't strict enough to guard against these kinds of threats.

COHEN: The problem with EPA standards is that they don't take into account things like the fact that children drink more water than adults. They don't take into account the fact that an individual may be exposed to many different pesticides in a single glass of tap water, and they don't even take into account the fact that individuals may not only be exposed to atrazine in their tap water but through other avenues as well.

TREMBLAY: In fact, officials at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington share these concerns. They've started to look at this issue of the total load of chemicals, and depending on what they find, could change their standards. In one of their first significant findings, researchers working for the EPA recently reported that chemicals from one common group of pesticides can have an effect when found together which is greater than the effect of the same levels of each chemical alone. In other words, the researchers say, if you have a glass of drinking water with four of these pesticides in it, they may have a combined effect that's the same as one of them at a higher concentration. This may not be true for all pesticides, but researchers are studying them one group at a time. While it searches for answers, the EPA is also handing out money to small water treatment facilities to help them deal with the spring flush of agricultural chemicals. Gail Hutton directs the water, wetlands, and pesticides division of the EPA for Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska.

HUTTON: We're finding a lot of interest in all four of our states from communities to use that money. There is a tremendous need out there.

TREMBLAY: But in the long run, Mr. Hutton says, the answer isn't just to try to remove pesticides from the water, but to keep them out of the water in the first place.

HUTTON: That's where as a society we need to be is focusing on long-term prevention as opposed to automatically assuming that we will have the technology to treat.

TREMBLAY: The philosophy of prevention is starting to gain popularity in small farming communities.

(Sounds of a spillway)

TREMBLAY: Near the Kansas-Missouri border, Hillsdale Lake sparkles under a blue, cloudless sky. The lake provides drinking water for people in the town of Spring Hill, Kansas.

MCCRAE: Would you like a glass of water?

(Ice clinks, faucet runs, sips)

TREMBLAY: In the kitchen of her split-level house, Janet McCrae draws a glass of water from the tap, hands it over, and watches closely while I take a sip. She chairs a citizen's group that's trying to control pollutants in Hillsdale Lake.

MCCRAE: We have been tracking and looking at the atrazine and phosphorus levels. We right now have a study that's underway to see if those are really the things that we should be taking a look at.

TREMBLAY: Janet McCrae's organization hands out brochures at local fairs and schools. Volunteers draw water samples from the lake for regular testing. They also channel federal money to farmers to help cut their use of chemicals. Their efforts are starting to pay off. Over the past five years, the atrazine level in the lake has dropped thirty percent. Ms. McCrae says when farmers learn there's a problem, many are eager to try to make changes.

MCCRAE: It's part of the Midwest atmosphere of you take care of what you create. You take care of your heritage. And they also knew that they needed to take care of the water quality for their children.

TREMBLAY: But not all farmers are easily persuaded.

FARMER # 1(Speaking into a walkie-talkie): Yeah, there's one of these heifer calves is on the wrong side of the fence there behind the pond dam, he's trying to get through, somebody go help him.

FARMER # 2: Yep.

TREMBLAY: Back in Boone County, Missouri, farmer Keith Schnare says people just don't understand what farmers have to do to be successful. The atrazine that he relies on to kill weeds is under review by the EPA. There's talk in Washington of banning it altogether. Mr. Schnare's jaw clenches when I ask him what he would do if he were presented with evidence that the chemicals washing off his fields could be causing serious health problems.

SCHNARE: Farmers are, if it's factual and fair and true scientific data (clears throat) I think farmers are willing to accept that, but when it's just not real factual or just scare data or political data, that's what we have a lotta problem with.

TREMBLAY: Despite his skepticism, Mr. Schnare has already voluntarily reduced the amount of pesticides he applies. He says he used to pour "gobs" of atrazine on his corn crop. This year he'll spray fifty percent less.

SCHNARE: Now your chemicals are real low volume and you use ounces where we used to use quarts and half gallons of the product per acre, we're down to ounces per acre.

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TREMBLAY: Here in Boone County, Missouri, many people aren't concerned about agricultural chemicals in their tap water. They're more worried about over-development and crime. But because they live in an agricultural area, they may be more vulnerable to unsafe water. And whether they worry or not, officials are worried. Researchers are looking for answers and the EPA will make its first announcements about its review of the most commonly-used herbicides next year. For Living on Earth, I'm Brenda Tremblay in Boone County, Missouri.

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CURWOOD: Next week: Living along the Mississippi River means living with millions of pounds of chemicals that wash downstream from farms and cities hundreds of miles away. Whether they end up in your drinking water can depend on whether you're rich or poor, whether you live in a small town or a big city, as well as a good measure of plain old luck.

WOMAN 1: Now try to drink, look at the particles coming out.

WOMAN 2: Oh!

WOMAN 1: See the particles? Smell it? This is what people have to do. It looks so pretty and nice. But just look at the water. No, that's a good thing.

CURWOOD: Drinking from the Mississippi, next week, as our series The Thirst for Safe Water continues.

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CURWOOD: Your comments on our program are always welcome. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or write 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Our e- mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. Once again, LOE@NPR.ORG. And visit our Web page at www.loe.org. Tapes and transcripts are $15. Coming up: In reforested New England, home is where the wild things are. Robert Frost, John Elder, and the mountains of Vermont are next, right here on Living on Earth.

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Mountain Home, With John Elder

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth; I'm Steve Curwood. For many of us, home is where we return after forays into wild places. But in the woods that have grown back in much of New England, it's not so easy anymore to tell where the wild places end, and our homes begin. One place where the two worlds mesh is in the Green Mountains, just above Bristol, Vermont. A resurgence of trees, bear, and moose there is obscuring traces of root cellars, apple orchards, and old family homesteads. Once celebrated in the poetry of Robert Frost, the reforested hills of Vermont have found a new voice in writer John Elder in his new work, "Reading the Mountains of Home." The book is based on Mr. Elder's hikes along the ridge of Bristol Cliffs, using Frost's poem directive as a guide.

ELDER: "Back out of all this now, too much for us, back in a time made simple by the loss of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off, like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather, there is a house that is no more a house, upon a farm that is no more a farm, and in a town that is no more a town. The road there, if you'll let a guide direct you who only has at heart your getting lost, may seem as if it should have been a quarry. Great monolithic knees the former town long since gave up pretense of keeping covered (and there's a story in a book about it), besides the wear of iron wagon wheels, the ledges show lines ruled southeast-northwest, the chisel-work of an enormous glacier that braced his feet against the Arctic Pole. You must not mind a certain coolness from him, still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain, nor need you mind the serial ordeal of being watched from 40 cellar holes as if by eye pairs out of 40 firkins. As for the wood's excitement over you, that sends light rustle [name?] rushes to their leaves, charge that to upstart inexperience. Where were they all, not 20 years ago?"

CURWOOD: What a powerful poem. And this is Robert Frost, of course, describing these hills, once greatly settled, once greatly farmed; hills that you hiked--


CURWOOD: --in the course of putting this book together. And I, too, have hiked some in the hills of Vermont. I'm wondering, Is this a good thing? Should our woods be filled with all this human history? Scored with, not just the motion of the glaciers, but also of the iron wheels of modern commerce?

ELDER: I found that the inextricability of human history and natural history in Vermont has felt increasingly rich to me. My sense is that, much of our thinking in this century about conservation has been focused on a sense of wilderness as absolutely separate from human works and human habitation, and I revere the wilderness movement, and I'm glad for its achievements. But I think it's also important to appreciate the ways in which culture and nature are interwoven, and that's the story of Vermont.

CURWOOD: Wild places are so exciting, though! I mean, you grew up in California.

ELDER: That's right.

CURWOOD: You've been out there, in the woods. Maybe you've been up to Montana, to the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and there's just no people, there's no machines--it's, it's--untrammeled wilderness. I mean, here in New England, where we're talking now, I think, in your book, what did you say? "It's like hiking in a teacup."

ELDER: Yes. That was when I first moved to New England from California, someone said living in New England was like living in a teacup, and that felt right to me. Things felt smaller, closer together. There wasn't that sense of sublime expansiveness, and certainly the western wilderness is magnificent. I love it. In Vermont, I can walk out of my back door, and never get into wilderness that majestic or separate, but I can see bear tracks, moose sign, within a walk of my house. In some ways, there's a possibility for balance in New England that I also value--not to the exclusion of Western values, but also in no way secondary to it.

CURWOOD: So there are some who would argue that people, humanity as apart from nature, although many people today say we're now a part of nature. You'd put them kind of in the same camp as people who say that people who say that humans are somehow apart from wilderness, that you really can't make a dichotomy between the two; that we shouldn't treat the wilderness as some exotic place that's sort of "out there," but needs to be more a part of us?

ELDER: Yes, I would. It's complicated, because this is a controversial area, with a lot of heat on both sides.

CURWOOD: Of course.

ELDER: Many wilderness advocates resent what seem to them, environmental historians' reduction of everything to a social construct, and I do understand that. At the same time, my sense is, finally, that the more hopeful course for us at this point is to understand that people are part of nature, and that what one group, for instance, more recent settlers, might call wilderness, another indigenous group that's been there longer might find a book filled with the stories of their people. And I think that one of the projects of Americans today, when we've been so mobile, since World War II especially, is to recover the stories that will tie us to our place and make us care about it, make us steady and faithful on behalf of the balance of our place on Earth.

CURWOOD: One of the most powerful elements of your book, John Elder, is your own personal healing process. You use these hikes through the hills around Middlebury to deal with loss. Can you talk about this sense of loss that you're expressing here? And the connections to environmentalism? Because that's often cast in terms of loss.

ELDER: Yes. It's interesting. When I began to write this book in the year that I especially set aside for hiking the Ridge and thinking about the poem, my father died at the beginning of the year and my mother became gravely ill, and actually died in the year after I finished, and there were other things, too, that made it a shattering year. And the idea, I guess, Steve, that connects this with wilderness is that of grieving. I think that the same people who might worry that celebrating the Northeastern Woods would give license to those who would like to develop the rest of the world, I might think of that as a kind of passive acceptance of whatever comes. And the same thing could be thought of grieving, that it's a passive lamentation. But my sense, from everything I've read, and the people I've talked with, and my own experience, is that grieving is work. That it's the work through which we respond to what's been lost and try to open up the possibility for a future. This is a time of tremendous environmental loss, not only in our recent past, but I'm afraid in our immediate future. And the challenge is not to deny that, not to seek to find a way to transfer blame onto someone else, but to own it as ourselves in our world, and to try to work with it.

CURWOOD: In the course of all this loss, you decided to build yourself--a canoe. Didn't you?

ELDER: I did!

CURWOOD: This was a--with your own hands! I mean, a wooden canoe. You didn't go out and get a preform and a little fiberglass, or something, you--

ELDER: Right. I built a canoe, and it comes out of a dream, actually, I had, in which I saw a canoe dedicated to my father. This dream came when my father was dying, and so I built the canoe. It's a cedar strip canoe. I got a book that told me how to do it. And my thought was, at the end of the hike, all the way up this long ridge, between Frost's cabin and our house, I would take it into the pond there, Bristol Pond, and achieve some closure in my reading and in my hiking and in my grief. It turned out a little differently. I ended up going down a wild river ride with one of my sons. But building the canoe and hiking the ridge became part of one larger project for me.

CURWOOD: Tell me more about what happened on this trip with your son, and what that ended up meaning to you.

ELDER: One of my sons, Matthew, just as I was finishing the book, asked me if I would take the Tribute, which is the name of my boat, both because it's dedicated to my father and it's from a favorite Frost line, down through the Otter [name?] Creek Gorge with him. This is a very wild gorge near our home, and it was after strong rains. So I did that.

CURWOOD: And this is, now, a cedar boat. You're risking everything. It's not like an aluminum canoe, that's gonna make a loud noise when it hits a rock. This is gonna--

ELDER: Yeah. It was a very shiny, beautiful, cedar strip canoe. So we went through the Gorge, and swamped it, of course, in ways that I tell about in the final chapter of my book.

CURWOOD: Any lessons learned?

ELDER: Yes. I think that going back again, I would relate this to perhaps the wilderness dichotomies that we're rethinking today. Sometimes I think environmentalists have taken, because of our desire to stand up for natural integrity, we've taken a fatalistic and essentially a pessimistic view. But sometimes, in the face of loss and accidents, wonderful possibilities may emerge. I believe that and I've experienced it. Again, not in a kind of passive, acquiescent way, but in a way that is open to the possibility of adventure.

CURWOOD: Well, thank you very much.

ELDER: You're welcome.

CURWOOD: John Elder's book is called, Reading the Mountains of Home.

ELDER: (Reading) "The present forest of mixed northern hardwoods has developed largely since the 1920's, while spruce, fir, and birch dominate above 2500 feet in the Green Mountains. These mountains are also now stocked with beech, oak, hickory, butternut, white pine, red pine, hemlock, and most notably each fall, with multitudes of maples. Durable kernels from the deciduous trees bided their time for years, in a buried seed pool, ready to burst upward from the ground exposed and torn by logging. The autumnal vividness that saturates the sky above me, now, is thus the offspring of 2 eradicated forests. A sharp withdrawal of nitrogen scratches the match that annually ignites these mountains. Summer flares up in a vivid combustion before drifting down in embers through the branches' bare gray mesh. The circle of the year turns, and is illuminated, in the transient glow of leaves. Over the coming weeks, as the Canada geese and snow geese pass southward, morning and evening through our lives, their calls will float down with those changing leaves. Familiar cycles of departure offer those of us who stay, a way to feel at home."

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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 staff includes Terry FitzPatrick, Liz Lempert, Jesse Wegman, Miriam Landman, Anna Solomon Greenbaum, Cynthia Graeber, and Stephanie Pindyck, along with Peter Shaw Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Bree Horwitz, James Curwood, and Barbara Cone. We had help this week from Alison Dean, Maggie Villiger, and Mahri Lowinger. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Peter Thomson heads our Western Bureau. Our senior editor is Joyce Hackel, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. 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 Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new economic approaches to advance environmental protection and human prosperity: www.wajones.org.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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