Episode 40: 10x10 - Midden

Up along the banks of the Damariscotta River in Maine there used to be two stadium-sized piles of oyster shells. Where did they come from? Why are they there? What can they tell us about the people that created them? There are mysteries in the middens!

 
Arthur Spiess | Photo: Logan Shannon

Arthur Spiess | Photo: Logan Shannon

A couple of weeks ago, Outside/In went on a field trip up to Damariscotta, Maine. In that town, about 15 miles upstream from where the Damariscotta river flows into the ocean, we met up with Arthur Spiess, Maine’s state archaeologist. We walked along a fairly unremarkable path that led down to the water, threading its way through overgrown apple trees.  

But there’s something special there, buried under just a few inches of soil.  

Sam Evans-Brown and Arthur Spiess walk down the path towards the Whaleback midden | Photo: Logan Shannon

Sam Evans-Brown and Arthur Spiess walk down the path towards the Whaleback midden | Photo: Logan Shannon

“That’s what’s left,” Spiess says. Close to the edge of the water there’s a little brook running down the hill, and the water has peeled back the layers of earth. Along the bank where you would expect to see just bare, brown, naked earth there was this jagged wall of shockingly white shapes. This shining, opalescent riverbank is actually made up of thousands of oyster shells, piled on top of each other.  

Arthur has actually dug all the way down into these shells, and found that they are still around six feet deep. And that is just the remnants.  

“There was an even larger pile of shells that went from the river, back to where those pine trees are… about a hundred yards, yeah. And it was 15 to 18 feet deep at the deepest.” Spiess explained. 

When you do the math, this comes out to more than 300 dump truck loads of shells. And some of these were monstrous oysters: 15-18 inches long with meat inside the size of your palm. 

There were actually two of these massive oyster shell piles in this spot: one on either side of the river. The spot where we stood was called the Whaleback Midden, and is now gone. It was mined for chicken feed in 1886. On the other side of the river is the Glidden Midden, which is still intact and continues to be one of the largest shell heaps in the country. 

So, what gives? Where did they all come from?

Middens, Not 'Mittens'

Whaleback shell mound - Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, PM #2004.29.874

Whaleback shell mound - Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, PM #2004.29.874

The short answer is that indigenous people left these oyster shells in this spot after taking them from the river, opening them up and eating the meat inside. Radiocarbon dating of shells at the very bottom of the pile show they were left there about 2,000 or 2,200 years ago, and judging from the types of pottery fragments that Art has found in the pile (and the absence of metal tools or other European goods) he thinks the pile stopped growing around 600 or 800 years before the colonial Europeans arrived.  

There was an even larger pile of shells that went from the river, back to where those pine trees are… about a hundred yards, yeah. And it was 15 to 18 feet deep at the deepest.
— Arthur Speiss

But who were the people pitching the oyster shells? 

Chris Sockalexis, the tribal historian of the Penobscot Nation and an archaeologist, thinks they were probably the ancestors of his people. The Penobscot are one of five tribes in Maine that collectively referred to themselves as Wabanaki, or ‘Easterners,’ and he thinks the people in this spot likely spoke a language very similar to their modern languages. 

Whaleback shell mound - Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, PM #2004.29.872

Whaleback shell mound - Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, PM #2004.29.872

But getting specific about how they lived is very difficult, since their tradition was passed down orally, and most of their stuff was made from biodegradable materials. And what’s more, indigenous people in this region lived in smaller groups with pronounced differences in their lifestyles. Some lived on the seacoast year-round, some were moving up and down river depending on the season, and each had their own rhythms that helped them find food year round.  

“You would have to say there are similarities coming from hunter-gatherer groups, but as they split off into kinship groups, each family would have their own certain mini customs and rituals, but when the larger aggregation comes together, they share that common bond,” says Chris. 

This is part of what makes these big piles of shells on the Damariscotta so amazing. Most shell middens are much smaller piles, maybe five feet deep and tens of feet across. But these are an anomaly. They’re so big, many people reason that they couldn’t possibly have come from one group: it had to have been many groups of people, over many years. 

But you all are the curious sort, and I can tell you want more than that. You’re hoping for a better explanation, but all we’ve got is shells. How do you answer these questions with nothing but shells?

Shells Can Tell You a Lot

So what happens when you dig in a giant pile of oysters? You find a lot of oyster shells, “Surprisingly,” jokes Arthur Spiess, “and some pottery fragments and some charcoal and a few fish bones.” 

“Not a lot,” he concludes. 

While this might not sound like much to reconstruct what life was like for the people who ate all of these oysters, it’s a heck of a lot more than you’ve got in a lot of other places. In huge chunks of the world—the Eastern US, Europe, Russia, Central America, Northern South America, Southeast Asia and Central Africa—the soil is actually slightly acidic. Meaning that over hundreds of years, the soil itself dissolves any human or animal bones buried in it. 

Map showing the acidity of soil, orange being acidic, blue being basic. Courtesy of: Kartesz, J.T. The Biota of North America Program (©BONAP). 2015. North American Plant Atlas. Chapel Hill, N.C. 

Map showing the acidity of soil, orange being acidic, blue being basic. Courtesy of: Kartesz, J.T. The Biota of North America Program (©BONAP). 2015. North American Plant Atlas. Chapel Hill, N.C. 

But if you cast yourself back to high school biology, you’ll recall that shells contain calcium, and calcium is basic; the opposite of acid. 

“The shells neutralize the soil acid, make the soil sweeter. Raise the pH above 7, and bone is preserved. And we love these sites for that reason,” explains Bruce Bourque, the recently retired head of archaeology at the Maine State Museum. 

So just from the beginning, what little we can know about the past here, we know thanks to the shells. 

And actually, just from some bones and shells, we know more than you might think. For one, the piles are full of fire-rings, which are full of fish bones. “The fish bones that are in here are mostly alewives, and they come up here in the spring,” says Spiess. There are also scattered animal remains, including the jawbones of deer, the teeth of which can also tell biologists when they were killed. Similarly, oyster shells grow in predictable annual patterns that can be seen using a diamond saw and a microscope. Spiess says both the deer and the oysters were eaten in the late winter or early spring.

These remnant imply that people would gather by the banks of this river, right around the time of year that the alewives would return from the ocean and swim upstream to lay their eggs. This time of year is often known as the hungry time: as winter slogs towards its finish any food you managed to save up during the summer and fall is long gone and no new edible plants are starting to come up yet. Just the time of year when it would be really great to be able to go to a place where you can find oysters the size of your fist just sitting on the bottom of a river. 

The people who were doing this came from hundreds of miles away, if not more. We know that thanks to the stone tools and projectiles. “Some of these stones traveled long-distances, primarily from the Moosehead lake area and Munsungan area, but we also are finding evidence in shell middens that the stone to make the tools is coming from as far away as Pennsylvania, possibly Ohio, [and] Labrador” says Sockalexis. 

Looking southwest from site of Whaleback Shell mound - Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, PM #2004.29.876

Looking southwest from site of Whaleback Shell mound - Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, PM #2004.29.876

The Glidden Midden as seen from the opposite shore. 2017 | Photo: Logan Shannon

The Glidden Midden as seen from the opposite shore. 2017 | Photo: Logan Shannon

And so the middens grew, a few shells at a time. Each year the people who came added about a half a dump-truck to the top of the pile. And every year, when the people came back and set up camp, sometimes they would move in right on top of shells from years ago. All through the heap of shells, there are black stripes of soil and charcoal showing where people set up camp on top of the shells.  

Generation after generation, one on top of the next. That, as near as we figure, is where these piles came from.

Why Did the Pile Stop Growing?

Shell heap - Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, PM #2004.24.3148

Shell heap - Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, PM #2004.24.3148

As far as we know, the people who made these massive, impressive piles of shells, stopped adding anything to them before Europeans arrived in the Americas. So what happened? To understand the most common explanation, you have to remember that the world didn’t always look the way it looks now. 

“If you want to find the coastal campsites of people who were here 10,000 years ago you have to go offshore… and you’re in about 150 to 200 feet of water,” says Spiess, noting that indigenous artifacts are often found in the dredges of scallop fishermen.  

The oceans have been slowly rising ever since the last ice age. When the ocean was farther away, the tides didn’t use to reach all the way up stream. And just downstream of these two piles of oyster shells, the river runs over a strip of rocks. So we can imagine that at first those rocks were a waterfall.  

But then as the water rose, this river began to swell, and the bottom of that little waterfall got higher and higher until, during high tide, the waterfall actually started to flow backwards. Then during low-tide, the water would drop, and it would reverse again. Those rocks became a two-way waterfall.  

Now, a couple of rocks and rapids wouldn’t have stopped tiny oyster larvae, which drift with the currents, but they might have kept out their main predators, a snail called the oyster drill. So this little barrier could have been what allowed for a massive oyster reef to form—one big enough to draw bands of people every spring from hundreds of miles around, walking or paddling in canoes, to eat oysters. 

But the same effect that created the reef, may have led to its demise. As the centuries passed and the seas continued to rebound, eventually that two-way waterfall would have begun to flood out, and bit by bit, the oyster drill snails could have begun to slither their way through. Over many years that massive reef would have begun to shrink.  

“With the declining oysters, you kind of have to think, why would you go back?” asks Sockalexis. This, he argues, explains we don’t see any artifacts in the pile that would have come from colonial Europeans. 

But for some of the people who have studied this place, there are things that don’t quite add up.

The Alternate Theories

Deb Wilson | Photo: Logan Shannon

Deb Wilson | Photo: Logan Shannon

Now, not a ton of people have studied these particular shell middens, but one of them is Deb Wilson, who was an archaeologist for around 20 years. 

“This is unusual,” she says when we meet her next to the river, “but more importantly they’re unusual for what’s in them. For the amount of shell, usually we see stone tools, bone tools, arrowheads… a whole cluster of different kinds of artifacts, but in these sites, there’s really only one or two stone projectile points that have ever been found.”  

Deb reviewed the artifacts that had been saved from the Whaleback Midden when it was mined and started to notice some odd patterns. For one, there were a lot of bear scapulas—shoulder blades—in the animal bones in the pile. In some tribes, scapulas were and are used in this thing called Scapulimancy. 

“You know they’re flat, so they would heat them on a fire and interpret the way they crack. As they might be wanting to decide where to go hunting. And they would find paths, in the cracks in the scapula,” says Wilson. 

There are more clues that lead Wilson to think that this site is something more than just an especially large pile of refuse. There’s an account by an elder from the Penobscot written in 1893 that says this spot had been set aside for the old and infirm. There’s also an arrowhead she found that seems to have come from a whole different culture from the Midwest, “and those guys were mound builders.” 

The mound builders cremated and buried their dead under elaborate piles of earth. So Deb thinks that maybe there’s something else going on here. Like maybe some folks from the mound-building culture made their home here at some point, and in just a few generations, built and deliberately sculpted these massive shell piles.  When colonials arrived, they called the bigger of the two middens the Whaleback, because it looked like the profile of a massive whale. Deb thinks maybe that was intentional.  

To her, this place feels like it could have been a monument, of some sort. 

“There are scraps of folklore that talk about things that are white and pilgrimages to places where there are things that are white,” concedes Bruce Bourque. “So those ideas are out there. It’s possible. Maybe even plausible, but probably unprovable.” 

But Bruce Bourque has his own—perhaps unprovable—favorite alternative theory. Remember the nice tidy little story, about the rapids, the big reef, and the snail drill? There’s just one problem, with it. “It’s never been proven,” says Bourque. it’s just an idea that was published in a paper many years ago, and no one’s disproved it, but it’s plausible but unproven.  

His preferred hypothesis is that the indigenous people were adding to the pile all the way up through contact with the colonial Europeans and in reality it was shipyards, built up stream dumping sawdust into the river that put an end to oysters in this spot. He thinks the reason there have never been colonial artifacts found in the piles is white settlers had already disturbed the middens before they could ever be investigated. He thinks they took shells from the tops of the piles and burned them to make lyme for bricks.

We're in the Fog of Time

Whaleback shell mound - Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, PM #2005.3.61.4

Whaleback shell mound - Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, PM #2005.3.61.4

This is what happens when you’re looking for clues in a two-thousand-year-old pile of oyster shells. To some archaeologists, this big pile of shells is just a big pile of trash that built up slowly and unintentionally. To others this pile could be something symbolic, or sacred. This is the fog of time, which just lets us see hints of shapes. Fuzzy outlines of something that might tell an appealing story. 

Deb Wilson thinks we’ll never know the answers to some of the most fundamental questions about what happened here.   

“I shouldn’t say this, but when we do archaeology I say it’s making up stories,” she says, laughing, “and these people were here, what? 1,500 years ago, 2,000 years ago? We, who watch TV, who live in houses with lights, who drive around in cars, can’t even begin to imagine what it was like to never know any of that. And just to be here, and paddle up and down the river, see the moon on these white shells.”  

It took the chicken feed mining operation only about a year to completely excavate the Whaleback Midden, which took more than a thousand years to amass. It was during this mining operation that the colonials, without anyone’s permission, unearthed human remains of the native people who created this pile. Fortunately—and uncharacteristically for the time—an archaeologist was hired to keep track of artifacts and human remains that were found in the pile, or we would know even less about this place.  

The good news is that the smaller pile on the other side of the river, the Glidden Midden, was purchased by a local land trust, and has been put into permanent conservation. But this doesn’t mean it’s safe. “It’s eroding very badly,” says Arthur Spiess. He says compounding the matter is the fact that the midden sits on top of clay, not bedrock. “Even if you put a rock wall down there, it wouldn’t last because the clay would go out underneath it.”  

One of the biggest piles in the country, one of the most remarkable monuments to indigenous peoples’ heritage is washing away. This is a story not just along the Damariscotta river. There are thousands of shell middens in Maine alone, and by their very nature they are close to the coast, and are at risk from rising seas.  

So when they disappear, the fog of time gets thicker, more impenetrable.  

For the descendants of the people who lived in this place, it’s tough to know how to feel about this. 

“It is disheartening to see some middens being washed away. But talking with certain elders... they were there for a purpose and if they’re getting washed away, they’ve served their purpose.” says Chris Sockalexis from the Penobscot, “I understand that logic, but as an archaeologist it’s tough to accept. I walk a fine line between tradition and science. Sometimes it’s tough, sometimes you have to choose I side. I try to stay right down the middle as much as I can, but sometimes it’s tough to live that dichotomy.”


Outside/In was produced this week by:

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

Special thanks to Peter Noyes and Jesse Ferriera of the Damariscotta River Association, that’s the land trust that owns and maintains the Glidden and Whaleback Midden sites, and to the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, for letting us use their photos of the mining operation at the Whaleback site. And thanks also to professor Joe Hall of Bates College. 

Just as a matter of pure coincidence, the Peabody will be putting some of the artifacts from Whaleback on display starting Saturday June 3rd, if you’re interested in seeing them. 

This week’s episode includes tracks from: Sometimes Why, Velella Velella, Podington Bear, Blue Dot Sessions and Ari de Niro. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from these artists.

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 38: Daisy Supply Chain

Ever wonder where those flowers in the grocery come from and why, no matter what time of year, there are always roses available? Just in time for Mother's Day—the second busiest floral day behind Valentine's Day—we look inside the billion dollar flower industry and trace the well oiled supply chain that makes sure saying it with flowers is always an option.

A flower display at a Concord, NH grocery store at 4pm on Valentine's Day. How about some baby's breath? | Photo: Molly Donahue

A flower display at a Concord, NH grocery store at 4pm on Valentine's Day. How about some baby's breath? | Photo: Molly Donahue

Think about Valentine’s Day. Not the stuffed animals and chocolate and cards… zero in on those flowers. Roses. Probably red. Probably a dozen of them. But here’s a quandary that perhaps you haven’t really thought a lot about: Valentine’s Day is in February, right? Where the heck are roses coming from in the dead of winter?

Credit: Logan Shannon & Molly Donahue

The florist? Sure, maybe. If you’re anything like our team, you’ll probably head over to the grocery store first to see what they’ve got. If you’ve waited until 5pm on Valentine’s Day, the selection is probably going to be a little sparse.

But just stop and think about this for a second: those roses that you’re squabbling over in the grocery store aisles, how did those even get there?

Fresh-cut flowers are nature’s most ephemeral phenomenon. Poets have written whole collections using the blossom as a metaphor for the briefness of life. But they rarely write sonnets about how the humble flower affects a country's gross domestic product.

In this episode, we’re tracing the path a cut flower takes, step by step. We looked inside the $31 billion American floral industry to show you what it takes to ensure that nature’s shortest lived product will arrive to the grocery store or florist’s fridge and then make its way onto your kitchen table looking fresh as a daisy. And that means starting down south. South America south.

From Domestic Product to International Import

Today, roughly 80% of our imported flowers come from Ecuador and Colombia. But this wasn’t always the case. Most flowers sold in the U.S. used to be grown in the U.S. New Jersey had a  handle on the rose market until it became more economical to move it to California where real estate wasn’t as valuable (yet). Colorado, with high plateaus, warm days, and cool nights was also a big producer. But in 1967 a graduate student in horticulture named David Cheever at Colorado State University asked a key question: Where’s the best place in the world to grow flowers?

Amy Stewart is the author of Flower Confidential and the woman we turned to for expertise on the flower industry. It turns out it places like Ecuador and Colombia, regions along the equator with high plains, cool nights, and low labor costs are the best places to grow flowers. Here’s a hint from Amy, “Roses happen to grow very well along the equator, they like warm days and cooler nights and the stems get very long.” Another advantage to places like Colombia: Bogota is a convenient 3 hour flight from Miami—which will make sense soon.

Business flocked down there in the 1970s. Colombia now exports more than a billion dollars worth of flowers each year, and most of that comes to the U.S. Other South American countries like Ecuador, Guatemala, and Costa Rica followed suit, but Colombia still has the biggest share.

This fundamentally changed the way we buy flowers here in the U.S. Before the 1970s, flowers weren’t really sold in supermarkets. The business in Colombia was just so successful that all the blossoms coming into the country needed outlets other than florists. And thus the supermarket/bodega bouquet was born! Which illustrates the point that flowers don’t just do really well in these regions, they also do really well for these regions, at least in terms of making money.

The South American Flower Machine

Solitaire Roses from a farm in Ecuador

Solitaire Roses from a farm in Ecuador

Carolina Loza Leon, is an Ecuadorian audio producer who went to check out the rose industry on our behalf. She visited several of the rose farms that blanket the region around Quito, Ecuador. She described the scene at one of the greenhouses near Tabacundo, Ecuador. There are some workers weeding, while another sprayed down the rows with some sort of chemical. According to Carolina, “There’s a guy zigzagging through rows and throwing pesticides, fumigating...He’s all covered but the rest are not covered, they’re wearing long sleeves and gloves and hats.”

Because flower don’t go through the same inspection process as produce entering the United States, the emphasis is on making sure there is nothing visually wrong with the product—no bugs, no fungus. So, there is a lot of spraying of these flowers and at least at this one greenhouse, not a lot of precautions for the workers. Carolina said about ten minutes after being exposed to the spray, her arms started itching, and some of the workers laughed when they saw her scratching.

In the 19th century, people literally said it with flowers. Floriography was a kind of code used by chaste lovers to express their deepest feelings. | Credit: Logan Shannon

This seems like a good time to point out that this story isn’t an exposé on labor practices and pesticide use in the flower growing industry. But from what we heard from Carolina, and from looking at what other reporters have found, it's fair to say it's a mixed bag: workers are exposed to some nasty stuff. Including some pesticides that are illegal to use here in the U.S. But it's also an industry that has bolstered the local economies of flower growing regions. 90,000 people are directly employed by the Colombian flower industry, while another 40,000 work for companies that support it.

Among the people Carolina spoke with was Jose Ivan Chorlango Sanchez. He goes by Don Ivan. He owns his own small flower farm in La Esperanza, north east of Quito. He explained the time table that goes into growing roses—some will need to be cut in a few weeks, other a month. While this might seem like a hassle, there’s a reason flowers rule this area.

In this region, prices and demand for produce is much lower. “Here, we’ve seen that there is no other business as good as this.” Don Ivan said. “Tomatoes, prices are low, demand is low. Same with potatoes...I’d need at least 5-6 hectares for potatoes to work.”

That 5-6 hectares comes out to about 12 acres, which isn’t much land by American standards, but if you’ve just got a little plot of land in the Ecuadorian Highlands, you can make a living with just a couple greenhouses, growing batches of a few thousand roses at a time.

In Don Ivan’s greenhouses, he starts cutting at around 7:00 am for about two hours, then there’s weeding and cutting off buds so stock grows straight. Cut flowers are put into water to be “hydrated” then packed off to the processor, where they’ll be classified, cut down again, and stored in a cold room.

Don Ivan’s processor is the Asociación de Productores Agrícolas Pedro Moncayo. It’s a co-op, formed as a way for smaller farms to group together and sell their flowers to wholesalers. It’s an alternative for smaller farms, formed in response to poor conditions of bigger farms in the area.   

So, while a single rose might cost you a couple of bucks in the grocery store, most of that money isn’t going to the growers themselves. It’s going to the rest of the supply chain that gets that rose to you.

Isabel Ramirez is the director of the Asociación, and she explained the cycle between two major floral holidays: Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, two big booms for the flower industry that come just a couple months apart.

For small-scale growers trying to satisfy demands, it makes sense to have an Asociación like this handling your sales. Someone like Don Ivan can still be in the greenhouse cutting by 7:00 am, while Isabel’s sales team can come in early to handle sales calls on Moscow time.  

Isabel explained that when her sales team comes in early in the morning they overlap for just a few hours with Russian buyers who are just about to head home for the day. Selling to folks in time zones in the U.S. is much easier. And all of this adds up to a setup that really works for smaller growers like Don Ivan, who says he gets about $0.33 per rose through the Asociación, more than he used to get through other processors.

So, while a single rose might cost you a couple of bucks in the grocery store, most of that money isn’t going to the growers themselves. It’s going to the rest of the supply chain that gets that rose to you.   

Alex Madrigal has a great line in his audio-documentary Containers that nothing ships by air except: ‘fresh flowers and fuck-ups.’

Whether or not a flower is coming from an association or a big farm, flowers end up packed together and trundled off to a distributor, then stuffed onto a freighter plane or in the space left in cargo holds of passenger planes. These are usually some of the last flights to leave at night, to limit time spent idling on hot tarmac. This is actually a wild part of this process, since nothing else really gets shipped by air these days. Alex Madrigal has a great line in his audio-documentary Containers that nothing ships by air except: “fresh flowers and fuck-ups.”

After their luxurious airplane trip, flowers wind up—almost always—in beautiful, tropical, Miami. Why Miami?

Amy said, “Most of the flowers in the United States come through the Miami International Airport because they have a cold storage facility there that’s ready to receive flowers and food and it’ll get inspected and go on a truck. So maybe by Wednesday or Thursday it’s on a truck driving across the country to wherever you live and it might at that point make its way into a wholesale market or a distributor where it’s once again going to be in some kind of cold storage for a day or two or longer.”

The Regional Wholesale Market

Emily Herzig loads fresh flowers into her van at the Boston Flower Exchange on a cold winter day. | Photo: Molly Donahue

Let’s back up for a minute. It’s those wholesale markets that caught our interest and lucky for us there’s one right nearby: The Boston Flower Exchange (though it recently moved and has a new name: The New England Flower Exchange).

It’s basically the flowery version of a fish or meat market, complete with very local vendors hawking their wares. It’s catered to people who really care about their arrangements looking good, and who want to see what they’re getting before they buy it. Because getting a bunch of wilted flowers off the internet does not work for high-end florists and many local vendors.

Since you need someone in the industry to escort you in the Exchange we called up Emily Herzig. She owns the Emily Herzig Floral Studio up in Littleton, New Hampshire, and was nice enough to let us tag along with her.

While Emily was piling up her double decker cart at one of her vendors run by Chris Goodman, we learned one of the core tenants of coming to a place like the flower exchange: it’s about quality, not quantity.

Chris started working summers in his family’s flower shop in high school and 25 years later he’s racked up some surprisingly global connections. 80% of the flowers imported to the US come from South America, but that last 20% are coming from all over the world. There are certain trade routes that are much more popular (we get most of our flowers from South America, while Europe relies heavily on Africa) but this is definitely a global industry.

It has to be, because when a person is getting married, they don’t really care that lily of the valley are out of season. So their hardworking florist will haggle with their wholesaler and they’ll track down some lily of the valley from Japan...for a price of course. But a big chunk of the floral industry isn’t being run through wholesale markets anymore, and that’s because these days most people aren’t getting their flowers from the shop downtown. They’re either going to the supermarket or they’re going to the biggest store on earth: the internet.

From the Internet to Your Doorstep

We’re talking about FTD, internet flower juggernauts. To be fair, FTD has been around much longer than the internet; it was founded in 1910 as Florists’ Telegraph Delivery. And it’s not the only “Big Flora” business out there. There’s 1-800-Flowers, Teleflora, Pro-Flowers, every other flower related play on words you can imagine.

Most of these big companies work in similar way. Let’s say you live here, in the NHPR studios, in Concord, NH. But you want to send flowers to a friend in Austin, TX. In the FTD universe, you can go to your local florist and place an order with them. They transfer that order to a local florist in Austin, through an FTD network. Bing, bang, boom! Your florist gets a percentage, FTD gets a cut, and that local florist thousands of miles away gets a sale. That sort of transaction makes up a big part of the flower market—Teleflora claims to have 15,000 shops in its network alone.

After a boom in the market in the 1990s, the number of retail florist shops in the U.S. dropped—but the industry value continued to grow. Remember? $31 billion. And at the end of this long and wild supply chain—from a greenhouse in Ecuador, to an airport in Miami, to a wholesaler or market, then through a retailer to your doorstep—that’s still a lot of roses. Even when they’re going for a couple dollars a stem. So why roses?

Well, roses are available and in demand. And according to Amy the best selling flowers aren’t necessarily the best loved flowers—they’re just the ones we’re used to buying. “We used to just sort of roll with that and those were the flowers we wanted because those were the ones in the field, but we’ve gotten used to this more technologically advanced way to growing things where if you want a rose in February, you get a rose in February even though that’s kind of an absurd idea.”

So, if Valentine’s Day happened any other time of year, like summer, we might be giving bunches of dahlias, not roses. Genetically modified roses, at that, bred for size and color and lacking in any scent. (It’s true! Give those roses in the grocery store a whiff. A rose by any other name, would smell as sweet, but those sure don’t.) Which brings up another question: if people want huge, colorful flowers...why not just get silk ones?

We’ve gotten used to this more technologically advanced way to growing things where if you want a rose in February, you get a rose in February even though that’s kind of an absurd idea.
— Amy Stewart, Author of FLOWER CONFIDENTIAL

Here’s what Amy had to say, “We can all spot a fake and I think it’s not the point. The point is not to have a colorful blob, but the point is to bring some of the outdoors inside. You know, to have something of nature, but also something that’s kind of exotic.”

If this is all getting too big, too industrial, if there are too many voices trying to explain this system to you: don’t worry. Remember Emily, the floral designer from earlier? She’s your other option.



Farm to Vase

Producers Molly Donahue and Logan Shannon visited Emily Herzig’s studio in Littleton, NH where she was gearing up for that other boon for the floral industry: wedding season. Beginning in May, they’ll start doing more events, about 40 over the course of the summer, and that’s on top of the normal “say it with flowers” sorts of days, stuff like birthdays, special occasions, and of course, apologies. We caught her chatting with Emma Brumenschenkel, her assistant and all around right-hand woman.

If you’re uncomfortable with the whole flower supply chain thing, the other option is something Emily and Emma work with fairly often: local plants and flowers. The American Grown flowers movement is picking up steam, educating people about the potential profit in flower farms. In Emily’s case, she does try to work with more local flower growers, because it’s a popular option, but there’s a lot of practical reasons too:  

Floret Farms, which is actually in the Skagit Valley over in Washington, she’s a big leader of this movement where she’s doing a lot of education and training for people to grow flowers and realizing that it’s a really profitable farming opportunity that we have. There’s a need for it and it’s environmentally better to be sourcing things from within the United States...cutting down on that carbon footprint of things being shipped from all over the world.”

And Amy Stewart made a good point about this too, “When you buy local flowers, you’re not just supporting a local farmer growing flowers, you may well be supporting someone who’s also growing your food and trying to find a way to make that [aspect of their business] financially viable for them.”

This is all well and good, but there’s a reason New England isn’t the nation’s bread basket. We’re not exactly in a prime flower growing zone here, which makes sourcing locally a little tricky. Emily said she sometimes has challenges getting enough quantity, especially from local farms like Tarrnation Flower Farm that runs its own shop, and that means she has to find several sources for the same kind of flower. Or, if you’re really lucky, she might just go foraging for your event.

There’s a reason we pick up flowers from the supermarket, or put in a rush order for a bouquet when you’ve forgotten your friend’s birthday, and why silk flowers simply will not do. Emily’s assistant Emma put it like this, “You walk [into a special event] and there’s nothing and when we walk out of there and it’s like a completely different world. It’s definitely so important.” But, if you want to opt out of this wild and crazy industry, but you still want to give someone a little bit of the outdoors, maybe say no to giant bouquets wrapped in cellophane on Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day, or at the very least forgo the roses. Mix it up a little!


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, Logan Shannon, and Jimmy Gutierrez.

Special thanks go to the Society of American Florists and their CEO Peter Moran. Also, thanks to Emily for bringing back the bonsai Sam bought then forgot on her cart - it’s doing well in its new home.

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.

S03|E05: The Death Machine, 3 1/2 Feet Under, & Eat and Drink the Invaders: Knotweed

In this week's episode, talking about death is never an easy conversation, but as today's episode reveals, people have a lot of questions about what happens to their body once they die. We'll look into the trend of a more natural approach to burial and why it's trickier than it seems. We'll also find answers to a few questions from the team about funerary practices. Plus, Taylor and Sam head to the lakes region to sample wine made from an invasive species. 

Note: This is an hour-long broadcast version of our show made especially for the radio. This show is made up of stories subscribers to the podcast have already heard so it won't show up in your podcast feed. If you'd like to hear us on the airwaves instead of just in your earbuds, consider asking your local public radio station to air the show! And if you'd like to support the work that we do, consider supporting NHPR, the NPR member station for the great state of New Hampshire, and the entity that pays our bills. Thanks!

Click on the individual segment titles to see photos, videos, and more!

Part 1

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The Death Machine

When Ryan and Sinehan Lessard first started dating, they discovered they have something strange in common: after they die, they both want to “become a tree”. This is the story about a growing number of people who want to forgo standard funeral practices like embalming, caskets and big granite monuments in favor of a more natural burial—and why that’s easier said than done.

 


Part 2

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3 1/2 Feet Under

After putting together the story on what happens to us after we die, the team was left with a few unanswered questions. This is a bare bones explainer (only pun, I swear) and resource list for readers who are interested in learning more about green burial and funeral practices. 


Part 3

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Eat & Drink the Invaders: Knotweed

If you have Japanese knotweed in your yard, chances are you curse at it, hack away at it, do anything to try and kill it. But we thought we should at least *try* to eat it, and we found a guy who even found a way to drink it. 


Inside ken Hardcastle's wine and beer making laboratory | Photo: Taylor Quimby

Ken and Sam check out the knotweed growth on Ken's property | Photo: Taylor Quimby

A bottle of knotweed wine from Ken's cellar | Photo: Taylor Quimby

Sam tries a glass of knotweed wine | Photo: Taylor Quimby


Japanese knotweed growing along side a road in Concord, NH | Photo: Logan Shannon

Best consumed in the early stages of growth | Photo: Logan Shannon

Later in life, Japanese Knotweed gets very woody | Photo: Logan Shannon

Sam evans-brown: knotweed hunter | Photo: logan Shannon


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown, Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, and Logan Shannon.

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.

This week’s episode includes tracks from [               ] Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from these artists.

Episode 37: Ask Sam Round-up

Since we launched the toll free version of our Ask Sam hotline, 1-844-GO-OTTER (844-466-8837), we've seen a real healthy uptick in queries. This time around we decided to ask Chris Martin of the New Hampshire Audubon, and Dave Anderson from the Forest Society to join Sam in our quest to answer your questions about the outdoor world. We've got everything from the geometry of wombat feces to planting trees by the light of the moon.

Question 1: Matt in Australia asks

"I do a bit of hiking up in the highlands where I live, and I noticed that wombats actually poo in cubes, so I did a bit of research and it said it stops it from rolling down hill. I was wondering if that would be beneficial, or not, to them?"

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Oh, Matt... Matt, Matt, Matt. You do know this show is based in New Hampshire, right? Your average New Hampshire naturalist is about as likely to know the difference between a wombat and a wallaby as we are to know how to survive a week in the bush in your shockingly deadly country. Regardless, we're nothing if not resourceful, and I can find you an answer.

The standard answer that you can find swimming around on the internet is that wombat poop is square to help mark their territory, but we called up Alyce Swinbourne, a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland, who is a little bit internet famous because she has figured out how to make wombats pee on demand. She doesn't buy the cube-shaped-scat-so-it-doesn't-roll-away explanation. "They're not a territorial animal," she says, "and they tend to have a latrine. They just go to a common area, where they poo."

Alyce thinks this is basically just an odd quirk resulting from wombats' incredibly efficient digestive process. "Essentially where they live is a semi-arid environment, and so their gut basically tries to compact and draw out as much water as possible... and so they come out as really compact, really really dry little bricks." She says that when working with wombats in captivity, who have constant access to water, this square shape goes away." They would look like little love hearts, or kidney bean shapes."

There you have it, Matt. Sometimes things, like wombat poop, are just weird. 


Question 2: Sally from Dover, New Hampshire asks 

"I was hiking this morning with my dog near Great Bay in Durham and I looked out over the water and I saw two swans and I took my phone out and I took some pictures, because I thought this was an exciting rare bird siting. But then I thought, I couldn't imagine that swans are native to New Hampshire. So I was wondering if swans are an invasive species? Were they someone's pet that got loose? I'm curious and I'd like to know."

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So many of our listeners come up with questions while wandering around outside! I love it!

Our resident bird-guy is Chris Martin, NH Audubon's senior biologist, and he was all over this question. North America does have two native swans—the trumpeter swan and the tundra swan, also known as the whistling swan after the noise its wings make in flight. However, his guess was that the bird Sally saw in Great Bay was most likely a mute swan, a bird introduced from Europe by wealthy folks who wanted the graceful birds to adorn their sprawling estates. Mute swans are big eaters, and can be very aggressive towards other waterfowl, (and hell, even towards people, as this poor soul found out) so local biologists aren't huge fans of them and many states have programs in place trying to reduce the population.

Ok, you've Asked Sam, now Sam Asks: why are all the swans named after the sounds they make/don't make?


Question 3: Tim asks

"Yesterday I was planting trees in my yard, and last night as I was lying in bed with the full moon's brightness kinda keeping me up, I thought about that old thing about, if you dig a hole during a full moon and you try to put all the soil back in during the wane moon, the soil won't fit in? Or it will? But my question translates to, does the volume of the earth, change with the moon? It's a broad question, but I'm curious."

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This question has been around FOREVER. You can find it discussed on gardening blogs, physics forums, and yes, the pages of the Old Farmer's Almanac. I personally don't think there's much of a question here: sometimes you dig a hole and fail to gather up all of the dirt that you scattered about and it seems like you've got too little, other times, (because you're probably digging a hole to put something in it) you fill your hole back up and there seems to be too much. But maybe I'm just a kill-joy. [Editors note: Sometimes Sam is a kill-joy. Other times he's just a party-pooper.]

However, this whole question of planting by the moon is "as old as dirt," according to Janice Stillman, editor of the Old Farmer's Almanac. The basic idea, she says, is that traditionally people believed that one should plant root crops when the moon is waning [going from full to new] and above-ground crops when the moon is waxing [going from new to full]. This belief "dates back to the ancients, and even the earliest almanacs dating back to the Egyptians were astrological," she explains. 

However, if you try to practice evidence-based gardening, you should know that it doesn't seem that anyone has really studied this in a controlled trial; probably because the science-y-est of the of science-y feel this is a silly question. That doesn't mean its not worth doing—Stillman says its a great way to "learn to observe" the natural cycles around us—and hey, it can't hurt.


Question 4: Bennett from Belfast, Maine asks

"I've had something that's been bothering me for a while, it has to do with this e-vo-lution and i was just thinking about, the other day, we was talking about shahks and they ain't changed much in a long time. But I'm under the impression that every generation of shahk that comes out or anything else for that matter, you got yourself, some of 'em, that are wicked suited to the environment that they was born in. And there's some of 'em that wahnt. And when you got an environment doesn't change much, then the ones that are most successful id be the ones that haven't mutated or nothin'. Dey ain't changed. So is that e-vo-lution in that situation or is there some other word for that? That's what I been wonderin'." [Editor's note: we really tried to capture the essence of this question in writing, but we strongly recommend listening to the audio for the full effect.]

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Well, it took our panel about 5 minutes to get on the same page with this question, simply because Bennett's spectacular (perhaps, somewhat enhanced?) Maine accent led two of us to believe he was asking about "shacks": as in the small out-building used to store tools or boil maple syrup. This question on its own is reason enough to listen to this week's episode, by the way.

However, we did eventually get back on track. The consensus is that Bennett was, in part, correct. Sharks haven't had to change quickly because their environment has changed fairly slowly. However, Chris Martin (again, as an "ologist" he gets to act as our resident devil's advocate) pointed out that there are obvious and dramatic examples of how sharks have evolved since their Devonian roots. Just think of the hammerhead shark's dramatic face-blades. If that's not an argument for the power of evolution, I don't know what is.

All of this is to say, that one can say that while sharks *are* incredibly ancient, they are *not* totally unchanged by time. In the words of one shark researcher, "Dating back at least 425 million years ago, sharks are among the oldest surviving vertebrate groups. But as we have seen, the popular conception of sharks as creatures that have somehow sidestepped the processes of evolution and arrived in our time virtually unchanged is pure bunk."

Oh, and if you'd like to hear about how shacks haven't really evolved much, you should listen to the podcast.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown, with help from, Maureen McMurray, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez and Logan Shannon.

Thanks this week to Chris Martin and Dave Anderson for being some-what willing participants. You should also check out their podcast, Something Wild!

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

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

S03|E04: Full Disclosure & Hoofprints on the Heart

In this week's episode, we look into the wonderful world of nature documentaries and find that truth behind the lens and the microphone is sometimes hard to find. Also, a heartwarming story from our podcasting friends in Montana, HumaNature, about a man who set out on a long journey with his trusty sidekick who just happens to be a real ass. 

Note: This is an hour-long broadcast version of our show made especially for the radio. This show is made up of stories subscribers to the podcast have already heard so it won't show up in your podcast feed. If you'd like to hear us on the airwaves instead of just in your earbuds, consider asking your local public radio station to air the show! And if you'd like to support the work that we do, consider supporting NHPR, the NPR member station for the great state of New Hampshire, and the entity that pays our bills. Thanks!

Click on the individual segment titles to see photos, videos, and more!

Parts 1 & 2

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Full Disclosure

Nature documentaries and wildlife films transport us to places in the world that still feel wild, but what if the wilderness they present is staged? What if, in order to capture nature’s unvarnished beauty and conflict, filmmakers have to engage in a bit of fakery? In this episode we examine how deception is used to enhance the drama of nature documentaries, from Disney’s Oscar-winning film White Wilderness, to the incredible footage featured in the BBC’s Planet Earth II. Plus, we own up to some of the production tricks we use to make this podcast. 


Part 3

HumaNature: Hoofprints on the Heart

This week on the show we’re bringing you something a little different, a story from someone else. Caroline Ballard and Micah Schweizer started HumaNature, which is based in Wyoming, and they’re part of the team responsible for bringing us the story of a man, his walk through an unfamiliar culture and an unexpected friendship, in a couple of different ways. 

Jon set out on the longest, toughest walk of his life. But along the way, he met someone who helped carry the weight.

The piece was produced by Erin JonesAnna Rader, and Micah Schweizer and hosted by Caroline BallardHumaNature is a production of Wyoming Public Media.

Seattle Denver Arms (Instrumental) by Loch Lomond is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 International License. Based on a work at http://needledrop.co/artists/Loch-Lomond


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown, Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, and Logan Shannon.

Special thanks to Phineas Quimby and Dan Barrick this week for being participants in our experiment in radio deception. Also thanks to Cynthia Chris and to Elizabeth White, she and the rest of the folks at Planet Earth have actually put out some behind-the-scenes footage of how they made the iguana snake scene that we reference earlier in the show, and have been really candid about their practices, in case you want to learn more about how they do it.

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.

This week’s episode includes tracks from Mon Plaisir. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from this artist.

S03|E03: Leave it to Beavers & Gnar Pow

In this week's episode we look into the long history of beavers in North America and why we humans seem to always be in conflict with them. Plus when did skiing get so fancy? And can Sam teach show producers who've never skied how fun it is to careen down a mountain on two planks?

Note: This is an hour-long broadcast version of our show made especially for the radio. This show is made up of stories subscribers to the podcast have already heard so it won't show up in your podcast feed. If you'd like to hear us on the airwaves instead of just in your earbuds, consider asking your local public radio station to air the show! And if you'd like to support the work that we do, consider supporting NHPR, the NPR member station for the great state of New Hampshire, and the entity that pays our bills. Thanks!

Click on the individual segment titles to see photos, videos, and more!

Part 1

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Leave it to Beavers

Beavers (Castor canadensis), have been kicking around in North America for 2 million years. Ecologically they do all sorts of great things: their ponds ease flooding downstream, and support large numbers of bird species, fish, amphibians, and otters. They're what's called a keystone species, as in the keystone to an entire eco-system. But they're also the world's second largest rodent and a nightmare for property owners. Humans and beavers have a long history together because they like to live in the same places, but the way we've built our infrastructure has almost guaranteed our two species will be locked in eternal conflict.


Part 2 & 3

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Gnar Pow

Is skiing a sport reserved for rich people? It’s a question that has come up among the Outside/In crew a bunch this winter. Producers Maureen and Jimmy think so. They’ve never been skiing, and always associated it with exclusive resorts and tricked-out gear. Sam wants to prove them wrong. 

In this segment, Sam takes his skeptical colleagues skiing for the very first time to prove that it doesn’t have to be a fancy endeavor. Will he succeed? Will it be wicked expensive? Will they enjoy it? Listen to find out.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown, Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, and Logan Shannon.

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.

This week’s episode includes tracks from Ari De Niro, The Marian Circle Drum Brigade, Blue Dot Sessions, Revolution Void, Jason Leonard and Podington Bear. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from these artists.

S03|E02: The Accidental History of Solar Power & The Company Man

In this week's episode, solar power is all the rage these days, but how did it get its start? And what the heck is net-metering? Also we'll hear about the resurgence of a deadly form of black lung in coal country and why, despite the severity of these health hazards, it's not getting a lot of attention.

Note: This is an hour-long broadcast version of our show made especially for the radio. This show is made up of stories subscribers to the podcast have already heard so it won't show up in your podcast feed. If you'd like to support the work that we do, consider supporting NHPR, the NPR member station for the great state of New Hampshire, and the entity that pays our bills. Thanks!

Click on the individual segment titles to see photos, videos, and more!

Part 1 & 2

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The Accidental History of Solar Power

If you’re even the least bit interested in taking some sort of personal action on climate change, you inevitably wind up researching solar power. And when you research solar power, you come across an obscure, hard-to-parse, seemingly content free term: net metering. Buckle up folks, we're going full energy nerd.


Part 3

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The Company Man

When he was just 38 years old, Mackie Branham Jr., a coal miner, was diagnosed with progressive massive fibrosis, a debilitating and terminal form of black lung, a disease that was thought to be a relic of the past; a problem when coal mining was at its peak. In this episode we hear from Branham and his family, in a collaboration with Producer Benny Becker who reported on the resurgence of black lung in coal country. We'll look into why, despite the severity of the illness and the large number of miners being diagnosed, it's not getting a lot of attention.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown, Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, and Logan Shannon.

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.

This week’s episode includes tracks from Mon Plaisir, Jahzzar, Jason Leonard, Blue Dot Sessions and Podington Bear. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from these artists.

Episode 36: Leave it to Beavers

Beavers (Castor canadensis), have been kicking around in North America for 2 million years. Ecologically they do all sorts of great things: their ponds ease flooding downstream, and support large numbers of bird species, fish, amphibians, and otters. They're what's called a keystone species, as in the keystone to an entire eco-system. But they're also the world's second largest rodent and a nightmare for property owners. Humans and beavers have a long history together because they like to live in the same places, but the way we've built our infrastructure has almost guaranteed our two species will be locked in eternal conflict.

We have created a trap for ourselves. A trap that ensures that we will come into conflict with nature’s most industrious rodent. A trap that also guarantees that we will come into conflict with each other as we try to sort out how to get out of this trap. That’s the conclusion I’ve reached, anyway, after spending the last few weeks researching beaver.

For seven years I said, you can’t kill them, you have to outwit them. That’s back when I thought you could actually outwit a beaver, but you can’t.
— Carol Leonard

Take Carol Leonard for example: a self-described “hippy-girl” who was the first registered midwife in the state of New Hampshire. (Incidentally, in what was perhaps the weirdest reporting coincidence I’ve ever come across, Carol was the same midwife who helped deliver me, 31 years ago.) When Carol retired to a beautiful 400-acre spread in mid-coast Maine, hoping to build her dream house, she and her husband ran head-first into conflict with beavers. A growing dam led to an expanding pond that was getting ominously close to where Carol wanted to put her septic system.

A pick-up truck swallowed whole by a beaver dam. | Photo Courtesy of Mike Callahan, beaversolutions.com

A pick-up truck swallowed whole by a beaver dam. | Photo Courtesy of Mike Callahan, beaversolutions.com

“For seven years I said, you can’t kill them, you have to outwit them,” Carol told me. “That’s back when I thought you could actually outwit a beaver, but you can’t.” Eventually Carol apprenticed to become a trapper. Her decision was that if she couldn’t outwit them, she would eat them. “I always thought I was on the other side, when I was doing my midwifery, so it always surprised me when I got into trapping.”

Beavers and people like to live in the same places, and if you pick a fight with a beaver, here’s what you’ve got to consider: we’ve got other stuff to do—jobs, meals to cook, soccer games. Beavers on the other hand, they do one thing: build dams.

So if, as in Carol’s case, a beaver were eyeing the same spot that you wanted to live, what would you do?

First We Eliminated the Beaver

If you’ve never seen a proper, massive beaver dam before, you need to get yourself over to Google image search right now and look at some. The biggest one in the world is about a half a mile long and 13 feet tall, and was identified from outer space.

Beaver teeth grow constantly, and they actually have to keep chewing wood to keep them in check. And yes, they do actually just eat wood: they eat the cambium, the soft spongy layer of new growth that’s just under the bark.

On the ecological side, beavers do all sorts of great things. Beaver ponds help to ease flooding downstream. They slow water down as it rushes towards the ocean, meaning they help to recharge drinking water aquifers. Their ponds support large numbers of bird species, fish,  amphibians, otters. They’re what’s called a keystone species, as in the keystone to an entire ecosystem.

Beaver have been kicking around in North America for 2 million years. What’s new, on the millennial time scale, is Europeans.

When the Europeans arrived in the US, first came the fur trappers and fur traders, driven by intense demand for top hats, made from felt which is made from beaver fur. (Because nothing says class like putting the world’s second largest rodent on your noggin.) They traded extensively with Native Americans, and paid them for every pelt they brought. After the fur traders, came the farmers.

On the ecological side, beavers do all sorts of great things.
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“Beaver were going to be both a source of cash for these settlers and, of course, a problem for these settlers, because beaver are competing for the same environment,” explains Ann Carlos, economic historian from the University of Colorado Boulder.

Beaver ponds, once the dams are destroyed and the water drains, turn into something called beaver meadows, which are fantastic places to grow crops. So farmers come in, trap any beaver that are left, destroy the dams, drain the ponds and make their fields. One study found that sixteen states lost more than 50 percent of their wetlands as the settlers rolled in. Another six states, mostly in the Midwest, lost more than 85 percent.

“By about 1830, many of these populations were being seriously over harvested, and run down,” notes Carlos. This was especially true in the United States, where all throughout the Northeastern part of the US, beaver were virtually wiped out.

And Then We Set The Trap

Meanwhile, year after year, we’re building. Those farms built on old beaver ponds are connected together by roads. More of the fields are subdivided and turned into housing developments. Bit by bit, we occupied the space the beavers once held.

Pat tate with a local beaver's handiwork | Photo: Sam Evans-Brown

Pat tate with a local beaver's handiwork | Photo: Sam Evans-Brown

Then in the early 1900s, we brought the beaver back. Why? Because for one, biologists had begun to recognize how good they are for ecosystems. But also people like having beaver around as a game species. In other words, an animal that is around so they can be trapped. So wildlife agencies reintroduced them and helped them build back up until they numbered in the thousands.

“Our roads were based on native American trails—a high number of them—and a high number of those native american trails were based on game trails. And I can say as a hunter who has walked all over the state of New Hampshire, their preferred wetland crossing every time has been a beaver dam,” explained Pat Tate, the furbearer biologist for Fish and Game here in New Hampshire.

In other words, many of our roads have been built the same spot that beavers like to build their dams. And in the cases of bridges and culverts, we punch a tiny hole through those roads for the water to pass, which is like a giant blinking arrow to any beaver that encounters it, indicating “build your dam here!”

So What Do We Do? Kill them?

The paradigm under which we currently operate is called the American system of wildlife management, under which wildlife is a commonly owned resource, and through regulation we decide how many animals we will kill. Are deer eating the shoots off of too many saplings out in the forest? Increase the number of deer hunting permits issued. Are farmers complaining about losing livestock to coyotes? Relax limitations on hunting them. Are there so many beaver that they are expanding wetlands until they flood wells and roads? Call in trappers to reduce beaver populations in that location.

This ensures that the population stays below what is called the “biological carrying capacity” which is a fancy science-y way of saying “how many beaver the land can sustain.” Pat Tate is a big believer in keeping animal density low, because he believes it makes the animal’s lives better.

I once removed a beaver that had a beaver-tooth in its back, and it didn’t grow its own tooth in its back, that was a tooth from another beaver that somehow broke off in the animal’s back.
— Pat Tate
Jeff Traynor shows us one of his beaver traps. The stick is the food. | Photo: Logan Shannon

Jeff Traynor shows us one of his beaver traps. The stick is the food. | Photo: Logan Shannon

Beaver are very territorial animals. When a young beaver reaches two-years-old, they strike out on their own to find their own water body to live in. Often they have to battle other adult beavers to find their place. “I once removed a beaver that had a beaver-tooth in its back, and it didn’t grow its own tooth in its back, that was a tooth from another beaver that somehow broke off in the animal’s back,” Pat said, “As I’ve reduced numbers in the wetlands, and went back subsequent years to trap, the amount of scarring and bite-marks on the beaver decreases. So the individual animal’s health increases.”

Most trappers aren’t doing it for a living, or to feed their families they do it because they want to. They want to connect with a tradition they identify with, or maybe they just like getting outside, and doing the close observation of nature that trapping requires.

And trappers I’ve spoken to hear a lot of hypocrisy whenever they hear people call trapping immoral. For instance, a trapper from Southern New Hampshire, Jeff Traynor, points out there isn’t the same outrage at housing developments or highways or parking lots: forces that have just as much to do with keeping beaver populations low.

“We are the most invasive species on the planet, there’s no doubt about it,” he told me, “As we encroach more we’re pushing them. So where is that overflow going? There’s only so many places that they can go. It comes to a point where you can say, well let’s just let nature take its course, or you can say, as human beings can we manage this creature with moral wisdom?”

Jeff Traynor prepares a trap. | Photo: Logan Shannon

Jeff Traynor prepares a trap. | Photo: Logan Shannon

One of jeff traynor's traps under a thin layer of ice and snow | Photo: Logan Shannon

One of jeff traynor's traps under a thin layer of ice and snow | Photo: Logan Shannon

After chopping away at the ice, jeff Prepares to check the trap. | Photo: Logan Shannon

After chopping away at the ice, jeff Prepares to check the trap. | Photo: Logan Shannon

Or Just Keep Them Off Our Lawns?

But this “moral wisdom” argument, just doesn’t do it for many beaver believers. Skip Lisle, founder of Beaver Deceivers International, has heard this argument for years in his line of work, and doesn’t buy it. “You know, you always hear, we have to kill the beavers so they don’t get hungry. And if you were an individual beaver, you can imagine which choice they would choose if they had one to make, right? Would you rather be hungry or dead?”

The proponents of restricting beaver trapping often point out that while some management decisions are based on ecosystems science—with government biologists going out and to try to estimate how many animals the land can sustain— other times, the decision is based on our willingness to tolerate animals. This is, almost euphemistically, what we call the “cultural carrying capacity.” And for beavers, it’s often that cultural limit, and not the actual limits of the habitat, that they bump up against.

Beavers are a two-million-year-old species, right? By some miracle, they survived just fine. They suffered, they died, they thrived, but they did it on their own, like most species do. You know we don’t manage chickadees so that some chickadees aren’t hungry sometimes.
— Skip Lisle

Skip and his disciples argue they can increase society's tolerance for beaver by keeping the two species from coming into conflict. Beavers’ damming instinct is triggered by running water, and by using a clever arrangements of grates, culverts, and drainage pipes, Skip keeps beaver far enough away from the running water that they don’t get the urge to start building a dam.

By putting in this type of “fixed protection” whenever a conflict arises, Skip argues we can have the best of both worlds: a growing beaver population and an infrastructure that isn’t submerged under beaver ponds. For him, the argument that trapping leads to a healthier population is beside the point.

This is a pond leveler or flow device, prior to being installed. This device tricks the beaver into believing that his or her dam is working. | photo courtesy of Mike Callahan.

This is a pond leveler or flow device, prior to being installed. This device tricks the beaver into believing that his or her dam is working. | photo courtesy of Mike Callahan.

“Beavers are a two-million-year-old species, right? By some miracle, they survived just fine. They suffered, they died, they thrived, but they did it on their own, like most species do. You know we don’t manage chickadees so that some chickadees aren’t hungry sometimes.”

These pipes and fences, limit where and how much habitat beavers can make. When the young beaver in these beaver colonies move out of their parents lodge, they won’t be able to just make this pond bigger and move to the other side. Instead of coming into conflict with humans who live close to the pond of their birth, they set off over land, and come into conflict with things that normally keep beaver populations in check: predators or other beaver.

Or maybe they’ll just wind in somebody else’s backyard; someone less dedicated to a non-lethal intervention.

What Would Happen If Trapping Went Away?

In 1996, animal welfare groups put forth a ballot referendum in Massachusetts proposing to eliminate the use of ,what they considered to be, inhumane traps. The referendum passed, making Massachusetts one of a handful of states to restrict the use of the standard trap that is used to kill beaver. After the referendum passed, the beaver population tripled in just a few years. (Though local wildlife advocacy groups argue this would have happened even if trapping was left in place.)

“As a result, the conflicts with people and the complaints essentially skyrocketed,” said Dave Wattles, the furbearer biologist for MassWildlife.

Mike Callahan of BeaverSolutions.com installed a flow control device on our beaver pond, to maintain the pond at its current level.

While the beaver advocates likely see the population boom as a victory, the rise in complaints had unintended consequences. In 2001 the state legislature passed a bill allowing kill trapping to be done through an emergency permitting process. Now though, those permits are given out by towns, instead of the state. This means that the state is no longer collecting data about how much trapping happens in Massachusetts, and that beaver can be trapped in the spring when it's possible to kill mothers, thus leaving young kits abandoned.

Dave Wattles also notes that beavers killed under a nuisance permit aren’t necessarily used for meat or fur. “The beaver that are now taken during these emergency permits, quite often they’re just trapped and thrown into a landfill and not used at all.”

What Would You Do?

Carol Leonard, who started off our story, spent seven-years trying to figure out how to fool the beavers on her property. “In my naivete I said oh well we’ll try these beaver deceivers and these beaver bafflers and all these do-hickers,” she recalled. But eventually she gave up and apprenticed with a trapper, and started to trap out the animals that threatened her property.

I think the traditions of hunting and trapping in New England are good, healthy traditions. And I can’t talk against hunters… I can’t. I’m a meat-eater.
— Carol Leonard

“We are meat eaters, you know, we are hunter gatherers, it’s part of who we are. And so to be able to turn a blind eye to that is just a blind eye,” she said. She applauds animal rights activists, but says she thinks their efforts are better spent protesting concentrated animal feeding operations, or other places where animals live short and miserable lives before heading to our plates.

“I think the traditions of hunting and trapping in New England are good, healthy traditions. And I can’t talk against hunters… I can’t. I’m a meat-eater."

Carol says she has trapped somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 beavers from her property, and while many still remain just downstream, the pond that was threatening her septic setback is no longer growing. In 2015, she and her husband were able to start construction and their home, now completed, is gorgeous, judging from a recent photo spread done by Down East Magazine.

Beavers and people, we like to live in the same places. And if you ever find that a family of them are eying the same spot as you... well, good luck.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown, with help from, Maureen McMurray, Molly Donahue, and Jimmy Gutierrez. Logan Shannon was our digital producer.

Thanks this week to Ben Goldfarb, Dave Wattles, and Peter Busher, all beaver pros who helped me sort this week’s story out.

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.

Music this week from Ari De Niro, The Marian Circle Drum Brigade, Blue Dot Sessions, Revolution Void, Jason Leonard and Podington Bear. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from these artists.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

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

S03|E01: Fantastic Mr. Phillips, Science & Politics, & Ask Sam

In this week's episode we follow the trail of a very secretive pioneer in eco-activism, look into the long history of the relationship between science and politics including the bizarre Doomsday clock, and Sam answers some listener's questions about spring tails, wind, and Mount Mitchell.

Note: This is an hour-long broadcast version of our show made especially for the radio. This show is made up of stories subscribers to the podcast have already heard so it won't show up in your podcast feed. If you'd like to hear us on the airwaves instead of just in your earbuds, consider asking your local public radio station to air the show! And if you'd like to support the work that we do, consider supporting NHPR, the NPR member station for the great state of New Hampshire, and the entity that pays our bills. Thanks!

Click on the individual segment titles to see photos, videos, and more!

Parts 1 & 2

FantasticMrPhillips.jpeg

Fantastic Mr. Phillips

In the late sixties, a soap factory in suburban Illinois discovered one of its outflow pipes had been intentionally clogged by an industrial saboteur. Does environmental damage ever demand radical action? And when does environmental protest cross the line and become eco-terrorism?


Interlude

Martha Soukup - flickr Creative Commons

Martha Soukup - flickr Creative Commons

Science & Politics

Activists aren’t the only group that has to wrestle with the question of how far they can push before society starts to think less of them, scientists are trying to figure out how far their credibility can stretch, too. While the scientific community has consistently ranked as one of the most trusted institutions in the country—right up there with doctors and the military—survey after survey has found that among Republicans, faith in science is on the decline. This is particularly true when it comes to certain topics, like the climate.

This is not to lay the problem solely at the feet of the Right. While those same surveys find that liberals profess to believe in science, they’ve got their own subjects where they are skeptical of scientific conclusions: nuclear power and genetically modified crops, to name a few.

In response, later this month scientists, the science adjacent and the scientifically sympathetic will march on Washington and at sister protests across the US. This of course has prompted a whole new round of anxiety in the scientific community. A coastal scientist penned a New York Times op-ed declaring the march would only increase the political polarization of science, which spawned countless blog posts in response.

But can we really say that science has never been partisan? We spoke with Rob Meyer, a writer for The Atlantic about how, going all the way back to the 1940s, scientists have put out the nation’s longest running political advocacy gimmick: the Doomsday Clock.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists manages the clock, the symbolic warning system that indicates how close we are to nuclear or existential catastrophe. That clock is now the closest it's ever been to "midnight" or the end of the world as we know it.


Part 3

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Ask Sam: Snow Fleas, Wind, & Mt. Mitchell

What are all those tiny little black bugs that show up in the snow, is there more wind than there used to be, and what's the deal with Mount Mitchell saying it's the highest peak east of the Mississippi?

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.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown, Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, and Logan Shannon.

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.

This week’s episode includes tracks from Jason Leonard, Blue Dot Sessions, Podington Bear, El Palteado, and Jahzzar. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from these artists.