Episode 51: Vultures Inherit The Earth

The Bicknell's Thrush is a bird that can only live in a few very very restricted places. It spends its summers in dense alpine forests in the Northeast of the US. In the winter, perhaps as many as 90 percent of the birds fly to the Dominican Republic. It's a bird without many options, and that makes it a poster child for what's to come. 

“Our bird”—that’s what conservationists in New England call the Bicknell’s Thrush. Why do they love it so much? It’s not a particularly comely bird. It’s almost entirely indistinguishable from the much more common gray-cheeked thrush. It has a nice song, but it’s about as endearing as any other song bird you might notice in the woods. What gets the Bicknell’s thrush its the moniker is simply that you can’t find it anywhere else.

“They’ve pigeon-holed themselves into a pretty narrow ecological niche,” says Chris Rimmer, director of executive director of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, a little research and conservation outfit that has taken up the challenge of trying to study and conserve the thrush.
 
That ecological niche is so small it’s almost comical. In the summer, the birds stick to “thick stands of stunted conifers on steep mountain slopes or near tree-line” according to the researcher that successfully argued the bird should be considered its own species, back in 1993. That means we’re talking about a handful of weather-beaten, high mountain peaks in the northeast of the U.S. and Southern Quebec. In the winter, the birds fly south, and nearly all of them head to the same place. Rimmer says that somewhere around 90 percent of Bicknell’s thrushes spend the winter in wet forests in the interior of the Dominican Republic.

In other words, the Bicknell’s thrush is a specialist: on both ends of its range, it lives only in a very narrow band of habitats. They don’t seem to know how to live anywhere else. “If these habitats disappear from our mountain tops,” explains Rimmer, “I don’t think the birds are going to just find a different place to go.”
 
Consider, now, another bird, one nobody seems to call “our bird,” though it has its aficionados: The turkey vulture.
 
“I think turkey vultures are just about a perfect creature,” says Katie Fallon, author of Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird. “They breed from south central Canada, throughout most of North America, Central America, and all of South America. They’re even on islands... Caribbean Islands... the Falkland Islands. They’re a bird that can be seen by almost everyone in the hemisphere.”
 
Turkey vultures aren’t picky. They will nest in dark crevices, abandoned buildings, the nests of other birds, mammal burrows, and even quiet spots on the forest floor, if nothing else is available. They are also shockingly efficient. When soaring, their heart-rate is nearly the same as when they are sleeping, which has even led some to suggest turkey vultures might actually take quick naps while flying. This is just one of the many delightful facts about these birds—my personal favorite is that their stomachs are acidic enough that it can neutralize cholera, botulism and anthrax.

When you add these various evolutionary talents up, you get an animal that is poised for success in virtually any habitat; basically, you have a generalist on your hands.
 
The world is made up of many species, and any one of them will loosely either fit the profile of a generalist or a specialist. That has always been true. What is newly true is that species are disappearing at an alarming rate, and many scientists believe we’re seeing the beginnings of something that will eventually be recognized as a mass extinction event.

“If these habitats disappear from our mountain tops, I don’t think the birds are going to just find a different place to go.”

And the problem is that these extinctions are not distributed equally. They’re coming for the specialists first.
 
“There’s really a striking common pattern that specialist species are declining everywhere,” explains Romaine Julliard, a researcher with the National Museum for Natural History in Paris, who co-authored a paper on the subject with the striking sub-title: toward a global functional homogenization? He say he found the decline “in coral fish, marsupials in Australia, and bumblebees in the UK, and some plants.”
 
But what’s intriguing about the trend is that the decline of specialists is “almost balanced by the increase in population size of generalist species.” Julliard has studied European birds in particular, and he found that while the abundance of specialist birds has declined 20 percent, numbers of generalists has increased by 20 to 25 percent.
 
We see this in our tale of two birds as well. The Bicknell’s thrush is losing habitat at both ends of its range. The high, coniferous forests are retreating upslope towards oblivion as climate change warms the Northeast, and illegal agriculture has eaten into the national parks that serve as the bird’s refuge in the Dominican Republic. There are estimated to be around 100,000 of the birds in total, and the species is on several lists of birds that the conservation community is concerned about.

a baby turkey vulture in its nest

a baby turkey vulture in its nest

The turkey vulture—in contrast with the Bicknell’s thrush—is thriving. Roadkill on our highways has created what amounts to a massive network of turkey vulture smorgasbords, crisscrossing the nation. Because the black asphalt absorbs and re-radiates heat during the day, these serpentine buffets also act as a ready source of thermal updrafts for the birds to surf along, spreading their ever-growing population to every nook and cranny of the hemisphere. Fallon says that 25 years ago the birds were estimated to number around 5 million, but today that number has risen to nearly 20 million worldwide.
 
This is the current trajectory we are on: The beautiful finely tuned specialists, hyper-efficient little motors built to extract calories from their own very, very specific habitats, are on the way out. As they vanish, the generalists—admittedly, marvels of flexibility and adaptation in their own right—are ascendant, rising to fill the space that’s left behind.

What’s behind this shift? According to Julliard, to date, it’s just regular old habitat loss. “Even though the climate change footprint on pressure on biodiversity is increasing and the evidence for that is increasing, it’s still likely lower than habitat degradation,” he says. In fact, a paper on extinction risk that was published in the most recent Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences came to the same conclusion: Large animals are most at risk from us eating them, small animals are at risk because we are destroying the places they live.

We already see the same starlings and house sparrows in almost any city anywhere in the world. Could we get to a future where the skies are full of nothing but turkey vultures, and the oceans are populated entirely by jellyfish?

sam evans-brown thrush-listening, with little luck

Is there anything wrong with this push toward functional homogenization? We already see the same starlings and house sparrows in almost any city anywhere in the world. Could we get to a future where the skies are full of nothing but turkey vultures, and the oceans are populated entirely by jellyfish? To me that feels like a nightmare scenario—something from Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy, except minus the genetic engineering.
 
Julliard has a reminder for me: “Evolution is really a force that drives to specialization and to differentiation,” he says. Pointing out that just as soon as we stop doing all the things that make life hard on them, the specialists will start to thrive again, and given enough time, speciation of new specialists will start to pick up again.
 
This reassurance is thanks to one of the tenets of ecological niche theory: In a stable habitat, natural selection favors the specialist. Which means “you need really a very high pressure to maintain this homogenization,” he says.
 
The problem, of course, is that the time-scales involved are deeply out of whack with our human experience. The world can recover from a whole heck of a lot, but that can take millions of years, and the world we’ll inhabit in the meantime will be a deeply impoverished one in comparison. And more to the point, who knows if we’ll even be around to watch the birds that repopulate that sky, to call them our own.


 

Outside/In was produced this week by:

Outside/In was produced this week by Sam Evans-Brown with help from: Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Hannah McCarthy,  and Jimmy Gutierrez.

Music from this week’s episode came from Blue Dot Sessions, Poddington Bear, David Szesztay, Jason Leonard and Ikimashoo Aoi.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-844-GO-OTTER (844-466-8837). Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.


Episode 50: Ask Sam

The Ask Sam hotline has been blowing up lately! Not like the Galaxy 7, no. In a good way! So Sam, along with a couple of producers from the Outside/In team, took a moment to answer your questions about tree killing, grass eating and the sound in the woods that scared the colonists away. And that's just to name a few. Somebody even gets a trail name out of this one.


Question 1: Trevor in Bailey, CO asks:

"Is the tradition we have of bringing flowers to funerals and cemeteries propagating invasive species?"

Trevor, what's your story? You a man of the cloth? A gravedigger? A mourner? Whatever the deal, calling us from a cemetery with your question about cemeteries really set the scene. We applaud your commitment to the hotline... and to the ceaseless pursuit of knowledge about the outside world.

So, Sam played in-studio expert here and you can rest in peace, Trevor! Those funeral flowers probably aren't doing anything to mess with the delicate balance of the graveyard, or lands graveyard-adjacent. First of all, those flowers are likely picked, cut, and artfully arranged before an insect can get around to pollinating. No pollination, no seed.  Not to mention the fact that most florist blooms are annuals. They've got one shot to impress, and then they're gone for good. They're also delicate. That leaves them with pretty rotten chances in the invasion business. Sam says funeral flowers don't stand much of a chance against robust greenery.

That said, if you're in Maine laying a bouquet at the grave of your late cat in a mysterious place that your neighbor Jud took you to, well. All bets are off. Sam didn't speak to the fate of flowers in the pet cemetary.


Question 2: Gregory in MA asks:

"I am sitting across from my neighbor's tree and it is just pissing me off. It is really big and obnoxious, and I was wondering what the punishment is if I just poisoned it and made it come down on its own."

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Look, Gregory, we're not lawyers over here or anything. But producing a podcast is kind of like going to law school, right? Right?Either way, producer Hannah McCarthy took your case. Congratulations!

This crime is on the books in your state, Gregory. It's actually on the books pretty much everywhere because people killing other people's trees is a popular past time. What is it about these tall drinks of pulp that makes people snap like a dead branch? Whatever the reason, Massachusetts Neighbor and Tree law says you could go away for up to six months for injuring someone else's tree. It's more likely, though, that you'll just be fined for three times the assessed value of the 'ol leafy giant. And a mature tree goes for anywhere between $1,000 and $10,000. So, unless you're looking to shell out thirty grand to your tree-hugging neighbor, this not-lawyer is going to recommend against the surreptitious offing of the offending arbor.

Now, if you were going to poison a tree, and do so without getting caught, the internet is flush with helpful information. Especially the forums of cycling websites. Don't ask me why, Gregory, but I do want to point out that our own Sam Evans-Brown is an avid cyclist. Coincidence? 

Yeah. Probably. Sam loves trees.


Question 3: Eric in Philadelphia, PA asks: 

"On the "Tell Me Something I Didn't Know," podcast, I learned the weight we lose when we lose weight is exhaled via carbon dioxide when we breathe, and I was just curious, or had the assumption that if everyone on Earth lost the weight that we need to lose to be at, I guess, a regular BMI, would that have any measurable impact on CO2 levels in the atmosphere, and could that have any impact on global warming."

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It may sound like a load of hot air, but it's true! If you trace the atoms in fat being lost, most of them are exhaled as carbon dioxide. The rest becomes water. Just think... every time you throw Terms of Endearment on for a good cry, that could be former fat falling down your cheeks. Weird.

As for whether a weight loss craze could put a dent in the atmosphere, well, Sam says a couple billion jazzercisers can't really compare to the Industrial Revolution. But we're a facts-based operation over here, so Sam Good-Will-Hunted this one for you, Eric.

SamWillHunting.jpg

Here's the rundown. There are approximately 2.1 billion overweight people on Earth, all an average of 20 pounds overweight. Those 20 pounds are about 18-percent carbon. So, if everyone who is overweight lost twenty pounds, it would release about 3.3 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere. That's the equivalent of the amount of carbon produced by 698,339 cars. So, a little more than all of the cars in Florida. Now, I know what you're thinking. Dang! That's a lot of carbon! Better discourage that whole "jogging" thing. But here's the deal. That's only 0.08-percent of global carbon emissions.

So, in short, no. Even if everyone worked their tucheses off to get in shape, it wouldn't make a measurable difference as far as global warming goes. 

It's not your fault, Fat. It's not your fault.


Question 4: Rhine* in Purvis, MS asks:

"I've been told my entire life that when dogs and cats eat grass, it's because they  have intestinal worms, but my dog has had fecal tests and takes a de-wormer pill every month. So, I know he doesn't have any intestinal worms, but he still eats grass occasionally. So, I'm just wondering if there's any truth to that claim that animals will eat grass if they have worms. And if so, why? And do all animals do that?"

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Look, who among us hasn't gone for a walk and munched on some Bermuda, or sampled the neighbor's finest Fescue? But are we doing it to keep the worms at bay? Well, to get to the root of this belly scratcher, producer Jimmy Gutierrez placed a call to someone who knows a thing or two about weird pet habits.

See, Jimmy's cat, Juanito, has something in common with your canine companion, Ryan.* He's got his go-to activities in the great outdoors. Watch birds, walk under cars, eat grass. And every time Juanito indulges? Well, it kind of seems like that grass isn't agreeing with him. Because it comes right back up. Jimmy's theory? Juanito's stayin' regular. But he called his favorite animal doc to confirm. 

We hate to disappoint, Brian*, but New Hampshire-based veterinarian Allison Frontz says this one remains a mystery, "There truly is not an answer to the question. Dogs and cats will eat grass really for no apparent reason. " Dr. Frontz says that it's commonly thought that animals eat grass in order to throw up, but that's really only based on the fact that so many do when they eat it. There's no evidence to show that Juanito actually needs to throw up in that moment, through. Animal scientists have studied this behavior and concluded that, well, some cats and dogs just like to eat grass. 

Dr. Frontz does recommend that you stop your pet from regularly eating grass if it makes them throw up, because nobody needs to be getting sick every day.

*Okay, we admit it. We couldn't make out your name on the tape, Rhine-Ryan-Brian. We haven't been able to enjoy a single bite of grass since.


Question 5: Shredder* in VA on the Appalachian Trail asks:

"We are all New Englanders but we've come down here in the South and we've made it to Virginia and we keep hearing this strange noise everywhere and we don't know if it's an insect or a bird or a frog, and I feel like I've failed my friends as the one with the forestry degree, so I'm just gonna hold my phone out and let the sound be heard and see if any of you guys know what it is."

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I mean, we don't want to suggest you've wasted your time and money and energy on that forestry degree or anything, but Sam knew what this was right away, so...

Just kidding, Shredder! You've just hiked thousands of miles through the thing that you've got a degree in, so you put us all to shame.

Anyway, there are katydids in them there hills! Of the Tettigoniidae family, for those of us with a forestry degree. Our friends across the pond call 'em bush crickets, and some old-schoolers refer to these wee beasties as long-horned grasshoppers. Whatever you call them, these guys are loud. The sound that you're hearing out there on the trail, Shredder, is a bug song made when these guys rub their forewings together. The upper wing, called the file, has a serrated edge. The lower wing scrapes against the file to produce a heck of a tune. Put thousands of these musicians in one place and you get a pretty overwhelming sound. So overwhelming, Sam explains, that when European colonists first encountered the katydid song they were scared silly of the shrieking in the woods. 

There are 258 identified species of katydid, and each species has it's own distinct sound. That's because these songs really only have one purpose: to attract a mate. The different songs, otherwise known as trills, are designed to attract females of the same species. So whenever you're lying under the stars, cursing this deafening late-summer sound, just remember... it's a love song. Or, a couple hundred love songs, all played at the same time. So romantic. 

Katydids are most commonly found in the Southern part of the United States, so that's why you might be unfamiliar with them. And these insects would be pretty hard to spot -- they're designed to blend into their surroundings, mimicking leaves while they rest during the day. So, Shredder, you've far from failed your friends. Besides, you were the one clever enough to call the Ask Sam hotline!

*Shredder is a trail name (the name fellow hikers give you on the Appalachian Trail). We asked Shredder to give Jimmy a trail name, but she demurred. So, Sam let Jimmy have GZA, even though Mr. Gary Grice of Wu-Tang kind of already has it.


Question 6: Claire in St. George, ME asks:

"I'm wondering whether harbor seals and other aquatic life know if it's raining or not."

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We didn't spend much time guessing on this one, Claire. Between the nature of sounds in the ocean and harbor seals' notoriously reticent ways, Sam decided to go straight to an expert.

Enter Jim Harvey of Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in Moss Landing, CA. We caught Jim at a good time, because he'd recently heard some data from the Monterey Bay aquarium. turns out they've got a hydrophone in the bay that's listening to sounds in the ocean. And that hydrophone has picked up the sound of rain on the ocean's surface at almost a thousand feet below. So, Jim says, "the answer is that if the harbor seals have [hearing as good] as the hydrophone, then, yes, certainly seals should be able to hear rain if they were underwater, if they can hear that frequency." 

Harbor seals have hearing similar to that of a cat or dog when they're on land, and that hearing improves once they're under water. So, Claire, it's certainly possible that these sea dogs (as well as other aquatic life) can hear a rainstorm even when they're underwater. 

But what about on land? Jim says he's spent plenty of time observing harbor seals, and that they tend to tolerate a light rain. But when things get heavy, you'll see them escape the storm by slipping underwater. 

Oh, and one more thing! It isn't relevant to rain, but it is adorable. Seals do this thing called bottling, resting with their head above water and their bodies submerged. And Jim says they'll dip below the water, rest on the ocean floor for a moment, and then bob back up. For hours. And when they just float on their sides? That's called logging. A mysterious and noble creature.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown, with help from, Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Jimmy Gutierrez and Hannah McCarthy.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-844-GO-OTTER (844-466-8837). Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

This week’s episode includes tracks from Podington Bear and Ari De Niro Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from these artists.

Outside/In is a production of New Hampshire Public Radio.

Episode 49: In Too Deep

This week, we're bringing you an adventure from our friends at the Outside Podcast. Trapped in a shipwreck on the ocean floor, running out of oxygen, body temperature falling, how long could you survive? Intrepid producers Robbie Carver and Peter Frick-Wright take a deep dive on this one.

In 1991, a man named Michael Proudfoot was SCUBA diving off the coast of Baja, Mexico. The details of his story are everywhere. And, more or less, the same. Exploring a shipwreck, Proudfoot breaks his regulator and surfaces in an air pocket deep in the belly of the ship. He finds a tea-kettle full of fresh water, and eats sea urchins to survive. But as producers of the Outside Podcast— Robbie Carver and Peter Frick-Wright — dig deeper and deeper into the tale, it becomes harder and harder to tell what's real and what isn't.

This is a story about deep-sea fact checking. Fact checking to the point of no return. What happens when you can't prove a story -- a really great, big fish of a story -- right or wrong?


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Outside/In was produced this week by Sam Evans-Brown with help from: Taylor Quimby, Hannah McCarthy,  and Jimmy Gutierrez.

Special thanks to Robbie Carver and Peter Frick-Wright for sharing their reporting and story from the Outside Podcast. You can hear more here.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-844-GO-OTTER (844-466-8837). Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Episode 48: Pick Your Poison

In our long, evolutionary history, modernity is just a blip. The wiring of our brains took place over hundreds of thousands of years of hunting and gathering food out in the wilderness, and nothing proves that more vividly than the practice of mushroom hunting. It’s incredibly addictive, even to those who know all too well the associated dangers.

Photo © 2012 J. Ronald Lee

Photo © 2012 J. Ronald Lee

***DISCLAIMER*** Don't pick and eat wild mushrooms based on photos you find in this post, or really anywhere on the internet. Please consult professionals. ***DISCLAIMER***

|This story comes to us from Barbara Paulsen, the host and producer of Midway: A Podcast about Midlife Transitions.

To tell that story, we’ll start with a woman named Donna Camille Davis. On a November day a few years back, Donna and her boyfriend got in their car and drove north for a weekend getaway from their home in San Francisco.

“We were finding the most amazing mushrooms,” she says, “I think we counted seven different types of edible mushroom, from hedgehogs, to chanterelles, to black trumpets, to blewits, and matsutakes.”

The difference between those mushrooms and the ones you find in your grocery stores (besides not tasting like styrofoam) is that wild mushrooms can’t be cultivated. So if you want to eat wild mushrooms—and lots of people do because they’ve got way more interesting mushroomy flavors—you have to go into the forest and find them yourself.

And when it came to foraging, Donna knew what she was doing. She’d been mushroom hunting for years. She’d found porcinis the size of her head. She had no trouble telling a black trumpet from a chanterelle.

They took one look at me and wheeled me right upstairs immediately, because they knew that this was not good.
— Donna Camille Davis

But, as it turned out, on that particular day in November, Donna made a mistake. Within days, she was living every mushroom hunter’s worst nightmare.

On the way home from her trip up north, the first symptom appeared: drop dead fatigue. She slept for three whole days. When she got up, she looked at herself in the mirror and saw that her skin was jaundiced, and she rushed to the hospital.

“They took one look at me and wheeled me right upstairs immediately,” she says, “because they knew that this was not good.”

When the doctors told her, “We think this is mushroom poisoning,” all she could think was this is going to be interesting... this is going to be interesting.

Scratching a Primal Itch

Salt Point Park in Sonoma Valley California is an oak and pine forest perched on the Pacific Coast. It’s a mecca for mushroom hunters—and one of the few parks that permit foraging in California. | Photo by Barbara Paulsen

To understand why mushroom hunters would take the risk of getting poisoned, you’ve got to go hunt mushrooms. So last Spring, I went to the very place where Donna Davis got herself into trouble: Salt Point State Park in California’s Sonoma Valley. I drove there with a self-taught mushroom expert, Patrick Hamilton. He’s got a ponytail and a soul patch and he became fascinated with mushrooms back in the 80s, after smoking some really strong Maui Wowie. These days, he teaches groups of beginners how to identify edible mushrooms.   

There was a steady drizzle as about a dozen of us gathered in the parking lot. First, Patrick sent us off to pick any mushrooms we could find, declaring, “If you see something fun, bring it!” After 15 minutes we met up to share what we’d picked, and Patrick had us lay all the mushrooms out  on a log. Most of them, he told us, were inedible, and one was a particularly poisonous specimen called a Deadly Galerina.

He proceeded to tell us how to identify the three or four mushrooms we wanted to find that day: black trumpets, hedgehogs, candy caps, and chanterelles. And then he sent us off again. Only this time, we knew what we were looking for.

But it was really hard!  I came across a British couple who also couldn’t find anything. We told Patrickour plight, but he wasn’t having it. He knew that our eyes just hadn’t adjusted yet—we were looking, but our eyes didn’t know what to see. He told us to get on our hands and knees  (“For Chrissakes!”) and look underneath things.

Take a peek into the bag of a novice mushroom hunter who’s delighted to have found chanterelles, black trumpets, and other edible mushrooms. | Photo: Barbara Paulsen

Fungi hunting is a muddy business. Mushrooms pop up a week and a half after a rainstorm and thrive in moist environments, like the sides of streams. | Photo: Barbara Paulsen

It’s extremely important to keep the entire mushroom intact for correct identification, as Donna Davis learned when a bit of poisonous mushroom contaminated an entire bag of edible mushrooms. | Photo: Barbara Paulsen

After I found this yellowfoot chanterelle, I finally got my “mushroom eyes.” Yellowfoots are a chef’s favorite for their delicate, mushroomy flavor. | Photo: Barbara Paulsen

And then something weird happened. He pointed to some black trumpets right there, hidden under leaves, and once Id seen them, they began to snap into focus everywhere I looked. It was like one of those Magic Eye books from the ‘90s, the ones with the meaningless pattern that hides a 3-D image. You stare and stare and stare, and then all of a sudden…Pop! There’s the picture.

I was drenched by the rain. My pants were smeared with mud. But I was crazed with the hunt. And right then is when Patrick said it was time for us to head back.

As it turns out there’s a term for what happened to me in the woods of California: Scientists call it the “pop-out effect.” Mushroom hunters call this “getting your eyes on.” I used to work for National Geographic, and for years I sent reporters all over the world to hang out with hunter-gatherer tribes. When they got back, their feet would be cut up and they’d be covered with insect bites, but they’d all tell me the same thing: Even though it’s really hard living off the land, there’s something deeply satisfying about finding your own food.

Veteran mushroom hunter Patrick Hamilton sorts the mushrooms our group has collected on a log in the forest. He’s taught thousands of people in the San Francisco Bay area how to safely identify edible mushrooms. | Photo: Barbara Paulsen

And that makes sense, right? I mean, our eyes are built to do this, to scour the ground for food. And every time we find something tasty, our brains give us this little chemical jolt. That’s what foragers call mushroom fever.

Invasion of the Death Cap

And that’s exactly what happened on that day in November 2014, when Donna and her boyfriend went mushroom hunting. They stuffed bags full of mushrooms, and they brought them back home to sort through.

“We didn't see anything unusual,” she says, “There were some pieces there that didn't have the caps so we tossed them out just to be safe.”

The next day, Donna invited friends over for wild mushroom soup. It was so delicious that she had a second bowl—and you know the rest.

Three days later, Donna was in the hospital, where they told her about an earlier patient who’d gotten poisoned and died. Before she was told it was the mushrooms that were making her sick, the thought of having picked the wrong mushroom never crossed her mind.

The reason Donna didn’t realize she’d been poisoned is that it took so long for her symptoms to appear. That delay was actually a clue, since it suggested that Donna had probably eaten a mushroom called Amanita phalloides, or the “death cap.” Other mushrooms can poison you—make you so sick you might wish you were dead—but it’s the death cap that’s most likely to kill you. Its toxins work slowly, and by the time you begin to feel really sick, it’s got a head start on digesting your liver from the inside out.

“There are people that accidentally poison themselves with death caps just about every year,” says Cat Adams, who studies mycology at the University of California at Berkeley. She says the death cap is responsible for 90 percent of fatal mushroom poisonings worldwide.

Despite its deadly reputation, Cat is enchanted by it. “I think it’s a really beautiful mushroom. It starts as a cute little button,” and grows up to be an elegant, mostly white mushroom that has  gills underneath and a greenish tinge to its cap.

It’s so common, it smells good, it tastes good, apparently. I’ve read a lot of reports of people who’ve been poisoned and unanimously people report that it was a very delicious mushroom, even as they’re dying.
— Cat Adams

But (and this perhaps is no terrible surprise) it’s actually not even supposed to be in North America. The death cap arrived here around 1930, when American botanists imported certain oak trees from Europe and the native soil around the trees’ roots were laced with death cap spores.

The deadly mushroom has been spreading across North America ever since. It’s been spotted in forests from Maryland, north into New Hampshire and Maine, and on the West Coast from Los Angeles all the way up to British Columbia. It’s especially plentiful in northern California, where Donna got herself into trouble. When you combine this with so many amateurs now cooking up wild mushrooms in their risotto, the number of poisonings is going up.

“It’s so common, it smells good, it tastes good, apparently,” says Cat Adams, “I’ve read a lot of reports of people who’ve been poisoned and unanimously people report that it was a very delicious mushroom, even as they’re dying.”

Last winter 14 people were poisoned in northern California in the month of December alone. Four were trying to get high on magic mushrooms, but most of the victims were just cooking up mushrooms for dinner. One meal poisoned five people, including an 18-month-old girl who now has permanent brain damage. In every case, a death cap was somehow mistaken for an edible  mushroom.

Adams says the death cap can grow intermixed with other edibles mushrooms, so if you’re not paying really close attention one may wind up in your basket. And since only a few milligrams of its toxins can be fatal, minor mistakes can become deadly.

Heart of a mushroom | Stanley Zimny by CC BY-NC 2.0 via flickr 

Heart of a mushroom | Stanley Zimny by CC BY-NC 2.0 via flickr 

Donna’s Path

“The whole episode of being in the hospital is like an Alice in Wonderland story in and of itself,” Donna says. Once doctors realized she had likely been poisoned by a death cap, they asked her more questions. Terrifying questions.

Do you have a will? …You need one, now.

Do you understand what it's like to have a liver transplant?  

Donna was in bad shape. She was throwing up the charcoal doctors had given her to extract the poison. Enzyme levels showed her liver was failing. “I was just in this kind of like dazed world of not really knowing what was going on,” she says.

And then she started to hallucinate. On the wall of her room in the intensive care unit, she saw a path.

“I could look down and the ground is like pebbles, clear, clear pebbles, and a canopy of trees and I could see the leaves and the veins and the bark,” she remembers, “and I'm beginning to walk down this path because it's like, ‘Wow, this is such a beautiful path!’”

But then, in her vision, things began to change. “As I walk down the path it was completely pitch black, and I thought … I'm not going there.”

Donna decided something remarkable, something that might have seemed—in that moment—nonsensical. Even though doctors were telling her to write a will, and that her liver was failing, Donna began to think otherwise. She didn’t believe she was going to die. Because of how badly she was doing, her doctor told her she was at the top of the liver transplant list, which has more than 14,000 people waiting on it. But when a liver became available, she turned it down.

She remembers the doctor looking at her and saying, “You don't want the liver?” and she replied, “If I don’t need it, I don’t want it.” She says they must have thought she was insane, or high (maybe a side effect of the mushrooms?).

But Donna was right. Her enzyme levels stayed dangerously high for several days, but on her fifth day in ICU, her levels came way down, and her liver started to regenerate. She says it was—inexplicably, unbelievably—a full recovery.

By Quinn Dombrowski from Berkeley, USA - Hedgehog mushroom, CC BY-SA 2.0,

By Quinn Dombrowski from Berkeley, USA - Hedgehog mushroom, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Backlash from the Mycophiliacs

This past summer, citing the rise of mushroom poisonings, the CDC issued a warning. They called the spread of death cap mushrooms a serious public health concern and issued a caution against eating foraged mushrooms.

Patrick Hamilton, the guy who took me mushroom hunting, wasn’t impressed.  

“Mushrooms have a notoriety, right? It’s like “Ow! Wow! Wild mushroom poisoning!” he told me, over the phone, “I think people fall off ladders a lot more, right? It’s a much greater public health concern!”

That’s true, but of course a lot more people climb ladders every day than go foraging for mushrooms. Regardless, Patrick is right that there are very few mushroom-related deaths, only 10 or so annually. And If you’re a mushroom hunter, this all fits into a maddening pattern: Even though very few wild mushrooms are poisonous, most Americans are afraid of them, because they don’t know which ones are safe to eat. That’s called mycophobia. But then when they do learn about mushroom foraging and try it out, a few get themselves poisoned. That triggers sensational press, warnings from the CDC, both of which feed Americans’ fear of mushrooms. A classic vicious circle.

So when people get poisoned by mushrooms, there’s often this backlash against the victims by the mushroom hunting community. Patrick says whenever he hears about these poisonings, he just thinks it’s “people doing stupid things.”

“Really why would you put something in your mouth and eat it when you don’t know what it is?” he asks.

He must have used the word stupid a half dozen times when I asked him about this.

Really why would you put something in your mouth and eat it when you don’t know what it is?
— Patrick Hamilton

“How many red lights do you have to go through?” he sputtered, “Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupider, stupidest!”

Given the mushroom hunting community’s sensitivity to this issue, it’s no surprise that when Donna Davis’ poisoning became public, they weren’t exactly sympathetic. They seized on a detail from a news report that said Donna had confused a hedgehog mushroom, which has pretty distinctive toothy spikes under its head, with a death cap mushroom, which has gills underneath.

The backlash to Donna’s story on the internet was just as dismissive. Mushroom hunters were like, this lady doesn’t know her ass from her elbow. She hasn’t bothered to learn to identify the number one deadly mushroom! If you know what you’re doing, you could never make that mistake.

Patrick cites this old adage: “There are old mushroom hunters and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters.” In other words, experienced mushroom hunters don’t accidentally eat deadly mushrooms.

But Cat Adams disagrees. “I’ve read like every paper there is about the death cap,” and she says even super-experienced mushroom hunters can make mistakes. She says she’s read cases of people who have been hunting mushroom for decades and —who accidentally poisoned themselves by eating  death caps.

“I really...I think sometimes a lot of people that do mushroom hunting are scornful toward those who get poisoned as a way to sort of make themselves feel better, but I think that really this could happen to anyone,” says Cat, “I think that really we should see them as examples of the fact that what we do is inherently a little dangerous and that we have to stay vigilant, always.”

But She Can’t Put Down the Basket

True mushroom hunters collect their bounty in baskets, to prevent the fungi from getting squashed. Plastic bags are a no-no: By day’s end, mushrooms turn to mush. | Photo: Barbara Paulsen

I asked Donna where she thinks she went wrong that day she got poisoned, and she told me it’s hard to say. Her best guess is that she accidentally slipped a death cap into her bag of hedgehog mushrooms, and that must have been one of the capless stems she’d discarded when she and her boyfriend sorted through the mushrooms after the hunt.

While it’s remarkable that Donna survived, it’s maybe more remarkable that she was the only one at the dinner party who got sick. She thinks this is because she actually made two batches of soup, one with chanterelles, the other with only hedgehogs. “Lo and behold, I was the [only] one who ate the soup that had the poisonous mushroom,” she says. “Thank God, they didn’t eat the poisonous soup.”

In retrospect, Donna says her real mistake was that she got overconfident, and that made her careless. Given the minute amount of toxin needed to kill you, the safest thing would have been to throw out all of the mushrooms from the contaminated hedgehog batch…no matter how delicious they were.

But Donna doesn’t beat herself up over her mistake. She never thought, how could I be so stupid? “It was,” she says, “just something that happened.” Since her recovery, she’s slowed things down in her life. But she still forages for mushrooms.

“You know you make your decisions. How you want to live your life. Do you want to live your life in fear?” She says, “Yes there are things that I did learn from that. Absolutely. But is it going to stop me from ever eating mushrooms again? No. I don't choose to live my life that way.”


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Barbara Paulsen with help from Sam Evans-Brown, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, Ben Henry, Hannah McCarthy, and Logan Shannon.

***DISCLAIMER*** Don't pick and eat wild mushrooms based on photos you find in this post, or really anywhere on the internet. Please consult professionals. ***DISCLAIMER***

Music from this week’s episode came from Podington Bear, Blue Dot Sessions, and Antony Raijekov.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-844-GO-OTTER (844-466-8837). Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Episode 47: Lime & Tabasco

Two young, starry-eyed conservation biologists take a college road trip through Mexico that transforms their outlook on the world. In so doing, they created the foundation for a strategy that would lead them to succeed where heavy-handed government policies had failed. But along the way, they had to get their hands dirty. 

 

In grad school, Wallace J Nichols (or J, for short), wouldn't have been considered the most likely person to help save an entire species. He had hair down to his ass and lived in a teepee on the edge of a national park near the University of Arizona in Tucson. He was a surfer bum, studying ecology.

But J, despite his waywardness, had a deep, abiding love of sea turtles. As a young boy, he would catch turtles in the Chesapeake Bay and, lacking the scientific apparatus to apply a real tag, paint numbers on their shells. J was not accustomed to people sharing this near-fanatic affinity for turtles, but then he met Jeff Seminoff in Tucson. The two of them, they discovered, had both volunteered at the same turtle nesting beach in Costa Rica at different times and they struck up an immediate friendship.

J and Jeff would take Jeff's 1975 Land Cruiser to Baja, Mexico on the weekends, go surfing and scuba diving during the day, and drink tequila around beach bonfires at night. Life was easy. But around that same time, in the early nineties, J and Jeff's favorite animal was in crisis, especially in Baja. Sea turtle populations had tanked so hard in recent years that the Mexican government outlawed hunting them in 1990, and most people thought it was too late to save them.

In their youthful haze, J and Jeff planned a road trip that would take them to every turtle nesting beach in Mexico. But what they saw weighed down the free-spiritedness that had driven them to take this trip. Some nesting beaches, where millions of turtle hatchlings had once drug themselves into the water, were now empty. Ancient fishermen spoke of mythical times long past when one could walk across the Gulf of California on the backs of turtles.

Jeff & J circa 1993 when they were both guiding turtle trips to Pacific Mexico.

Against the advice of professors who told them it was too late, J and Jeff both changed the concentration of their studies to sea turtles; they hoped—with a nearly-deranged confidence common to grad students—they might change the trajectory for a critically endangered species. Mexico's turtle fishing ban had very little discernible impact in improving the turtle's bottom line. Commercial fishing had stopped, but a black market still thrived. Exactly how two suburban kids from the east coast might change a turtle-eating culture that went back centuries remained unclear.

Trying to Catch a Turtle

Jeff Seminoff is now a scientist for NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. When I interviewed him in his office a few months ago he acknowledged the difficulty of the quest. "To go in and be an armchair conservationist and tell people not to eat turtle would literally," he said, "have been no different than somebody going into anywhere in the United States and saying you can't eat hamburger anymore. It's illegal."

The government ban wasn't working because eating turtle was deeply embedded in Mexican culture. Poor families in fishing communities ate turtle several times a week for subsistence. Rich people ate it as a show of power, which in turn created a black market. J Nichols told me that for his first couple of years working in Baja, the cultural forces standing in his way seemed insurmountable: "Whether it was a chief of police or a governor, [eating turtle] was something people did with impunity."

To prove they actually had a project worth pursuing, Jeff and J needed to catch a turtle so they could measure and document it for their research, showing that a long term tagging study would be viable. But to do that they needed a knowledgeable fisherman, and that wasn't exactly an easy get. The cultural differences between two middle class grad students and a Baja fisherman can hardly be overstated. Fishing was basically "janitorial status" at the time, J says.

In Juncalito, a small village 700 miles south of the U.S. border, they found Juan de la Cruz. Juan started fishing in 1959, just as the turtle population began to nosedive. He remembered the days when turtle seemed plentiful and he still knew where to catch them. Jeff and J heard he was the greatest turtle hunter they could hope to find, but when they approached him, he told them to go away and not come back.

Jeff Seminoff with the first turtle he and J ever caught.

The Americans didn't have the right permits to catch a turtle and if Juan had been caught by the authorities in a boat with two Americans and a turtle, he would certainly have been facing jail time. They offered Juan a meager amount of money for his time, but Juan said, "No, no, no, I'm afraid if we catch a turtle then you will go to jail and I will have to go with you. Then if I have to go to the jail, I will kill you."

Day after day, J and Jeff showed up at Juan's house trying to convince him to help. They would bring beer and Juan would feed them. Jeff and J met his wife and daughters. Eventually, Juan began to appreciate these two nutty Americans and their hard-headedness. He decided to help. He took his turtle nets out from under a piece of corrugated metal where he kept them hidden and the three of them went out at night to try to catch a turtle.

As Juan dozed off just before sunrise, J heard a splashing in the net. He nudged Juan, but Juan said, "No, no it's probably a sea lion." The splashing continued though and Juan heard the strained breath of a sea turtle. They heaved it into Juan's panga, a Mexican fishing boat, and as a pink sun rose in the background, J shot pictures, while Jeff measured the turtle.

"It was an indication that there was one turtle left," J told me later. "We built our case on that one turtle and on Juan's trust."

Jeff and J pitched research projects, and got grants. During the beginning of the internet boom in the mid-nineties, they put a satellite tracker on a turtle and shared the data. Classrooms full of children watched on computer screens as "Adelita" swam from Baja to Japan. It was the farthest tracked migration of a turtle up to that point.

But their research wasn't converting to actual conservation of the species. They spent time in Mexican classrooms educating young school children about the dwindling population, but most adults still ate turtle regularly.

Lime & Tabasco

J and Jeff were becoming full-fledged scientists. They had the right permits from the Mexican government to catch and release turtle. This made it easier to convince Mexican fishermen to help them, but it didn't mean they had the complete trust of those fishermen. After all, this is two foreigners descending from the United States and telling turtle hunters it's bad to catch turtles to feed their family. If Jeff and J couldn't convince these fishermen to reduce the turtle catch, they—like the Mexican government—had no chance of succeeding.

Many fishermen had asked J during his travels around Baja whether or not he had eaten turtle. Answering honestly, he said no and very frequently, that was the end of the conversation. There was a cultural rift between himself and the fishermen, that he could not bridge. The two halves of J were profoundly conflicted: on one side J's inner child, that little turtle tagger standing on a dock of the Chesapeake Bay; on the other, J the burgeoning conservationist, who knew that to gain the trust of Mexican fishermen he might have to compromise his ideals.

J ultimately made a decision that went against the ethics of many of his scientific colleagues and many environmental activists. The first time he ate turtle, a fishermen had accidentally caught the animal in his net and it had died. J knew the fishermen wouldn't let the meat go to waste, and he felt like it might go down easier if he knew that the turtle hadn't died just so someone could eat it.

But the second time was much harder.

One of J's contacts caught a turtle and J knew he was planning to eat it. J asked the fishermen to save him some research samples, if indeed he did eat the turtle. "Oh you want me to kill this turtle for you," the fisherman replied. J protested, but the fisherman butchered the turtle right in front of him. His wife served the liver, sliced, with tabasco sauce and lime wedges.

J still didn't know how to build a movement of fishermen dedicated to saving turtles, but he felt like eating that liver was somehow a step toward making it happen.

Grupo Tortuguero

The idea of not eating turtle wasn't widely catching on in most places where Jeff and J were working across Baja, but in one community fishermen were beginning to become receptive. Jeff Seminoff focused all of his turtle research in the community of Los Angeles Bay and J often worked there too. Jeff estimates the two of them dropped $50,000 a year in research money there, and paying volunteers began coming to LA Bay to assist in their work. Local fishermen began to realize that there could be money in this conservation thing.

While Jeff was working in just the one community, J was driving around Baja working with fishermen in many different places, and several fishermen, including Juan de la Cruz, asked J about the other fishermen he worked with. They wanted to know who the other fishermen were, where they lived, how many turtles they caught. As J was driving one day, the idea dawned on him: why not bring this informal network of fishermen together? Get them all in the same room and talk about how it might be possible to reduce the turtle catch.

Close-up of the first turtle Jeff and J ever caught.

J told Jeff Seminoff about the idea and they mashed it around together to come up with a plan. They scraped together enough money for beer, tacos and some hotel rooms and held the meeting on a weekend. They even invited, in J’s words, “the biggest, most badass poachers of all time” to show up. They were taking a big risk. If the endgame is for two foreign scientists to tell a room full of badasses to stop doing what they do, the chances of those people getting angry or walking out is high.

But it wasn’t just foreigners at this meeting; they had allies. Instead of bringing out charts and talking about the decline of turtles, Jeff and J got help from people they’d already convinced like Juan de la Cruz. “I’m worried that if we keep catching the turtle my grandkids will never be able to meet them,” Juan told everyone. The second decision they made involved compromise, just like J’s initial decision to eat turtle. Instead of asking people to stop catching turtle, period, J and Jeff asked if everyone in the room could “throw one back.”

“Because if they can throw one back maybe it can be two or three,” said Jeff Seminoff. “And once we start the dialogue then maybe we can get people potentially to a place of not eating turtles at all anymore.”

Everyone agreed to throw one back, though Jeff and J had no way of knowing if they would stick to it. They also agreed to meet again next year, and chose a name. They settled on Grupo Tortuguero. There’s not a great English translation, but “Turtle Hunter Group” is probably best.

Their work didn’t go unnoticed. Everyone knew about these two crazy gringos who wanted everyone to stop eating turtle; but once it seemed like they might actually have an impact, some people got mad, especially those whose pocketbooks might get hit hardest.

A man involved in trafficking, who also had tons of political clout—J wouldn’t say who it was—once told J to his face, in public, “Get out! Don’t mess around with that or you’re gonna have problems.”

Another time, at a fishing camp far from removed from the safety of crowds, J found a picture of his face pinned to a wall with a bullseye drawn around it.

Chuy Lucero, field director of Grupo Tortuguero, tagging a green turtle

Getting Closer

J told me once, “If there’s one turtle champion that’s terrible actually: you need thousands. And so how do you get from one or two or five to one thousand or two thousand or five thousand fighting for the species?” The strength of the group that Jeff and J formed is that, in the end, it answered that question. Threats to just the two of them would not be enough to stop what eventually became a changing culture.  

In the second year of the meeting, Jeff and J were impressed. More people showed up and this time everyone had a story of throwing a turtle back—even those big, badass poachers. The story could end here, with Jeff and J getting fishermen to buy into the idea of saving turtles. But they took it one step further.

J and Jeff also made an effort to cut themselves out of the picture and start putting research money directly into the hands of community members. Jeff says they wanted to make people “junior biologists.” That first meeting brought representatives from only a handful of communities. Now Grupo Tortuguero has members in more than 75 communities. Some of those members are paid and some are volunteers. Many of the paid people are former fishermen.

J describes it this way: “So if Uncle Jose works at GT he could have a pretty big shadow in his family and in his community.” Maybe he’s not influencing 100 percent of the community, “but it is enough to give sea turtles a chance.”

They’ve done more than give them a chance. While some turtle species are still struggling in Mexico, others have rebounded greatly since J and Jeff arrived. Green turtles (known as black turtles in Mexico) have increased their numbers more than 20-fold on some beaches. J Nichols likes to imagine a day when he'll be able to sit with Juan de la Cruz and share a beer, as their kids and grandkids play in the waves and sea turtles swim—again as abundant as bison used to be on the plains—around and beneath them. That day hasn't arrived yet. But because of the work of Grupo Tortuguero it is closer.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Will Huntsberry with help from Sam Evans-Brown, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Hannah McCarthy, Jimmy Gutierrez, Ben Henry, and Logan Shannon

Special thanks to Julio Solis, Matty Plau, and the folks at Red Travel for helping out down in Baja.

Music from this week’s episode came from Jason Leonard, Komiku, Ari De Niro, Blue Dot Sessions, and Broke For Free.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-844-GO-OTTER (844-466-8837). Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Episode 46: The Hitchhiker's Guide to WWOOFing

Looking for a relatively cheap way to spend a few weeks abroad? You might want to consider World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF. Have an aversion to mud, farm animals, and learning on the job? Maybe reconsider that first suggestion. But for those of you who are looking for an adventure, on a budget, Sam and Molly have composed a “guide” for would-be WWOOFers to think about before taking off–from how to make sure your visa is in order, to embracing the awkwardness of close quarters with strangers, while still maintaining your dignity. 

VISAS ARE COMPLICATED

Sam and Aubrey in a place where they WWOOFed without a visa, because they are a couple of rule breakers.

Sam and Aubrey in a place where they WWOOFed without a visa, because they are a couple of rule breakers.

When you WWOOF, you don't get "paid" in the traditional sense, but what you are doing is working in exchange for room and board. And in some countries, you're not allowed to WWOOF unless you get a visa issued by that country. That needs to be done in advance. You can't just fly to the country where you plan to WWOOF and say, "I'd like a visa, please!"

Claire WWOOFed in Sweden and Spain for two months with no problems, but when she went to Ireland, she and her girlfriend were stopped in customs. Ireland, as it turns out, is one of a handful of countries that require a special visa just for WWOOFers and other work exchange programs, called a working holiday visa. Claire and her girlfriend were detained, their mugshots were taken, and they were kicked out of the country. Not ideal.

Other countries consider WWOOFers to be just like any other tourist, like in Europe where you can stay for just three months. Sam and Aubrey tested the limits of that rule when they WWOOFed. They stayed in Europe for ten months, moving from farm to farm. When they were heading back to the US, a customs official in Iceland called them out on it. After a tense moment, they were eventually allowed to return to the US but were told they wouldn't be allowed back to Europe for three months. Crisis averted, but the lesson here is one all travelers should heed: make sure your papers are in order before you leave the country.


YOU'VE GOT TO BE GAME

Ian West holding one of the turkeys.

Ian West holding one of the turkeys.

Killing and cleaning chickens, hard physical labor, chickpeas upon chickpeas, fertilizing with your host's stored urine, all of these scenarios and so many more can be part of the WWOOFing experience. You need to be ready to roll with the punches, which could mean slaughtering poultry or adapting to a new diet. 

When Ian arrived on a farm in Oregon, within minutes he was helping kill and prep chickens for eating. What started out as a way to fill a few weeks in between finishing up a backpacking trip and starting a trip with a National Outdoor Leadership School wound up being a crash course in learning where your food comes from.

For Andy, who WWOOFed in New Zealand, most days were filled with hard physical labor, building a long fence, digging post holes for hours in the hot sun. After a full day he was famished, only to find that his meal would be chickpea burgers with hummus on top. Chickpeas on top of chickpeas is not the most satisfying meal. Another woman Sam spoke to worked on a farm where her meals were toast. Three times a day. Just slices of toast.

WWOOFing can be challenging and it's important to try new things you might not have otherwise tried, but it's equally important to know your own limits.


WWOOFING IS HARDER AS A WOMAN

Shea and her friend at one of their WWOOF homes.

Shea and her friend at one of their WWOOF homes.

To be fair, a whole lot of things are harder as a woman, and WWOOFing is no different. Shea had a couple of really uncomfortable moments WWOOFing. One of her hosts, a single male, would have her and her friend fertilize the crops using a mixture of water and urine that he had stockpiled. To be clear, it was his urine. On another occasion, a male host at one of the farms would take all of his baths in the stream, and then walk the property naked, with no warning. 

Aubrey struggled at one WWOOF location when one of her hosts would ask Sam to go prune trees and chop wood and then ask Aubrey to clean the kitchen. At first, she felt like it was a chore like the others, but after a while it became clear to her that her host thought she was useless.  

When you are choosing a WWOOFing opportunity, do your research before you choose a farm to work on, but also, don't be afraid to speak up or leave if you feel you're being treated unfairly. Man or woman, if you're in a situation where you, or someone you're with is not being treated with respect, stick up for yourself and for others!


YOU ARE ALL UP IN PEOPLE'S BUSINESS

Jacob heading to the fields with his WWOOF host's child in tow.

Jacob heading to the fields with his WWOOF host's child in tow.

Molly was fortunate to have a WWOOFing experience that included a big, beautiful farm house, with a private bath. Sam had a variety of experiences, good and bad, large and small. But quarters, in general, can be tight. It can start to feel claustrophobic when you're sharing space with relative strangers. 

For Jacob, the experience was particularly intimate and uncomfortable. The family at one of the farms where he worked was having marital problems. Serious marital problems. In the mornings he would hear the couple shouting at each other, and he was left tending to two toddlers who were clearly upset that their parents were fighting. On top of that, the patriarch of the family began asking Jacob for advice. Jacob was 24 years old, so imagine his confusion  when a forty-year-old father of two was asking him for parenting and marital advice. 

Your experience will definitely vary, but living in close quarters can be tricky and you may find that you are privy to very personal and, ahem, challenging conversations and situations.


BE OUR (GOOD) GUEST

A breakfast Molly ate while WWOOFing in Ireland. 

A breakfast Molly ate while WWOOFing in Ireland. 

WWOOFing is a two-way street. You're counting on the host to be gracious and fun, but they're counting on YOU to be a good guest. Sam's favorite WWOOF host was Maria Jesus who ran a cheese farm in Spain. Her experiences with WWOOFers run the gamut of great to just plain bad. One guest showed up, ate dinner, did laundry, showered, and the sneaked off in the morning without doing a speck of work.

At Maria Jesus' farm WWOOFers were given a place to cook for themselves and then she would go grocery shopping to stock the kitchen. On one occasion she had a pair of WWOOFers who didn't know the first thing about cooking and she had to teach them the basics, like how to cut a tomato. 

Molly's host in Ireland, Anne, was an amazing cook and incredibly accommodating. But just like WWOOFers, hosts have their limits. An Italian couple came to work on the farm and she found them delightful, but on the evening of their arrival the woman announced that she was vegetarian. Anne explained that ham was on the menu for dinner and the woman replied with: "Oh that's alright, I eat ham." This seemed odd to Anne, but her guest did in fact eat the ham and then ate the other meatless options. Eventually, the woman discovered that the ham had come from the pigs on Anne's farm, and became terribly upset and refused to eat any more ham. Farm to table was a little too close for her comfort, apparently.

Anne also has a few repeat WWOOFers that come to help out on the farm including Bob who despite having no background in farming, became a vital helper on the farm. The first time he arrived he stayed with Anne for 3 months and did everything that needed to be done. Bob puts his head down and works hard, something any WWOOF host can appreciate. So remember, you want to have a good experience, and your host has probably invited you into their home hoping to provide a good experience, but sometimes you have to meet in the middle. When in doubt, do your best, and treat people how you'd like to be treated!


YOU'LL PROBABLY LOVE IT...AT LEAST THESE PEOPLE DID

Jeremy enjoying some of the fruits of his labor.

Jeremy enjoying some of the fruits of his labor.

Everyone we spoke to about their experience loved it, would do it again, and recommended it to others. Even Shea who dealt with a naked host AND a host who stored his own urine to use for fertilizer. Even Jacob who became a defacto au pair and a reluctant marriage counselor. 

One more person who had perhaps the most unbelievable WWOOFing stories is Jeremy. He went to Spain, Italy, Israel, and Wales during a gap year between high school and college. In Italy he stayed in a castle on the outskirts of a little village with what sounds like the descendant of the feudal lord who used to rule the village. He ate wild boar, drank home-made wine, did shots of whiskey in the morning; he provided a slew of coming of age stories set in an idyllic Italian location. 

Soon after his Italian adventures, he traveled to Israel and worked on an herb farm next to the border with the Gaza strip. This was in 2009 when a new round of hostilities had kicked off and he said he could see rockets flying overhead from Gaza at night. An experience he will not soon forget.

These are likely not the experiences that a tourist gets while riding a bus though the historic district of old European cities. WWOOFing is a strange, difficult, and often times wonderful way to explore other countries, meet new people, and build up a stockpile of amazing stories to share with family and friends. 

Correction: Jeremy misspoke, he was in Israel in 2009, not 2007. This post has been changed to reflect that correction.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Outside/In was produced this week by Molly Donahue and Sam Evans-Brown with help from: Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Hannah McCarthy, Jimmy Gutierrez, and Logan Shannon

Special thanks to everyone who responded and shared their sometimes shocking, always entertaining WWOOFing stories.

Music from this week’s episode came from Gillicuddy.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-844-GO-OTTER (844-466-8837). Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.