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.

Episode 45: Bright Lights, Big Salad

Lēf Farms built a $10 million dollar, state of the art, automated greenhouse, hoping to sell baby greens branded as fresh and local to area grocery stores and restaurants. But even local foods can meet with local opposition when the neighbors see a farm that doesn’t match their expectations for what agriculture should look like. 

The inside of the Lēf Farm’s 50,000 square foot greenhouse sort of looks like a cross between a computer chip factory clean room, a Ford automotive factory and an Ikea. They’ve invested in a way to grow baby greens incredibly fast. Two weeks fast. They currently have one crop that takes 13 days from germination to harvest, and another that’s 17 days.

And this greenhouse, at full capacity, will be able to grow 1.3 million pounds of baby greens each year, with growth happening year round, even in the middle of a harsh New England winter.

That is… a lot of salad.

How Does it Work?

This Ford factory style greenhouse is almost completely automated. But instead of Mustangs, it’s cranking out baby greens. Instead of pots, the plants are grown in long trays they call “gutters” and they take up the entire greenhouse floor.

“[It] looks like a miniature rain gutter, specially designed to hold our growing medium, and also work with automation. About 19 feet long, just under 2 inches wide.” Says Bob LaDue, Vice President and COO of Lēf Farms.

It’s basically an assembly line for growing lettuce. First, a machine fills each of these gutters with a really thin layer of nutrients. Next, a robotic arms swings that gutter over to a different machine which sprinkles a precise number of tiny seeds into the soil. Robotic arm number two then swings the gutter out onto the greenhouse floor.

Hydroponic technology is much more efficient in terms of getting nutrition to the plant. So we can essentially cut the growth time in half.
— Bob LaDue

Once these gutters are position, the plants receive a steady dose of liquid food from underneath the gutter. There are large storage tanks of this solution on the property. It’s what you’d expect to see at a big industrial chemistry lab.

No humans touch these plants.

Bob explains that the, “hydroponic technology is much more efficient in terms of getting nutrition to the plant. So we can essentially cut the growth time in half.”

So now you’ve got this image: a big greenhouse, about the size of a football field. Glass roof, glass walls.

Inside Lef Farms 50,000 sq. ft. greenhouse | Photo: Todd Bookman

And the whole thing is actually a conveyor belt. The gutters start at one end and move down the length of the greenhouse. When they get to the opposite end they start their slow motion journey, back towards the other end.

And so as you walk the length of this greenhouse, you can actually see the plants get taller and taller.

“As we walk down the greenhouse, each one of these groups is one day older than the last, so you can see the crop growing. Getting bigger, a day older than the last one.” Says Henry Huntington, the CEO of Lēf Farms.

So, at the end of their plant journey, they get swept away by yet another conveyor belt that runs the plastic gutter through a harvesting machine, which snips the greens down at the stalk.

The leaves get bagged by another machine. The plastic gutters get rinsed out, what’s left of the stalk gets composted, and the process starts all over again.

So How Much Does it Cost?

Henry invested $10 million dollars to get this greenhouse up and running. Which is a LOT of money for a greenhouse, but think about how much baby greens cost. Lēf sells those 5 ounce clam shells you see lined up at the grocery stores for somewhere between $3.99 and $4.99, a package.

Baby Greens are the Prada of produce, the Lamborghini of lettuce, the Stradivarius of salad.

But just to be clear, this isn’t exactly an easy thing to pull off: lettuce usually does not want to grow in the middle of the New England winter. Lēf needs to mimic June weather—a warm and humid, 75 degrees—365 days a year. Plus, lots of natural light.

“Essentially, we have to feed the plants the same amount of light every day, [a] 24-hour period day, and we want to get as much as we possibly can from the sun, and anything that we don’t get from the sun, we have this lighting system to provide whatever is in deficit.” Says Bob LaDue

So high powered, specialized lights turn on in the greenhouse when the sun goes down. And this is great news if you’re a baby green, but stop and think about this for a second. A glass building, in a cold and rural part of the world, inside of which, at night, they have to turn on extremely bright lights.

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Bright Lights, Big Problem

The Lef Farms Greenhouse at night in March of 2017 | Photo: Sam Evans-Brown

Tom Schneider was not thrilled, to put it mildly, when the greenhouse went up and got turned on. “I was pissed when I saw that light. I just couldn’t believe it. And I saw it, and I thought, now how can you do that?” He says. “I mean, in the annals of fucked up business moves, this seriously rates its own chapter.”

Tom and his wife and kids live in Loudon, in an old farmhouse high up on a ridge that he bought a little while back. “It’s 360-degrees of just beauty. It is hard to describe. It is better than I thought it was going to be. The sunrise, the sunset, are like nothing I’ve seen. And I think that’s probably what concerned me at first. What’s this going to do to the view? And I think that sounds kind of selfish. I should be more concerned with the ecological, and the physiological, and the psychological impacts this might have, but initially I thought: aesthetics.”

It’s worth mentioning that Tom’s house is 6 miles as the crow flies from Lēf Farms. And when these lights were switched on for the first time this past winter, Schneider says he didn’t even understand what it was. He just saw this strange haze gobbling up a section of the sky.

“Unnatural. It wasn’t a natural color, like a sunset.” He says.

I was pissed when I saw that light. I just couldn’t believe it. And I saw it, and I thought, now how can you do that?
— Tom Schneider

Now, Tom is not the only one being impacted by the light pollution from Lēf Farms. Molly and Dan Sperduto live in the opposite direction from the greenhouse. They’ve got this great house out in a clearing.

Here’s how Molly described the greenhouse: “So the sky is just an orange glow. Actually the first night we were driving up Route 106, and we all thought maybe there was a horrific accident because the sky was so bright, we thought there was a fire, or a conflagration of some sort.”

Molly says the light is so bright, she doesn’t need a flashlight when she takes her dog on early morning walks in the woods. And since their bedroom window faces Lēf Farms, even with their blinds closed, the light seeps into the room. Dan has taken to wearing a sleep mask.

“If you were into star watching, sky watching, constellations and stars and all that, it would pretty much ruin it. If you were here on a good star night, and that light came on, show would be over.” Says Dan.

You Have to See it to Believe It

Since people started getting mad about the overnight lights, Lēf switched the hours they use the lights. Instead of turning them on in the evening, they wait until the middle of the night to turn them on, and they’ve cut back on the number of hours when they’re lighting up the greenhouse.

We went to see it for ourselves, at around 4 a.m. on a cold morning, and we could see the glow from miles away. This wasn’t like the vague bloom of a city that lays just over the horizon, it was a much more intense and all-encompassing incandescence, as if you might expect to see a massive structure fire when you turned the corner. Seeing this greenhouse in all its glory, you can understand the neighbors displeasure.

But who is really being impacted by the light? Night owls and insomniacs? Stargazers? There aren’t any neighbors in the immediate vicinity of the greenhouse—it’s in an industrial district that used to be a gravel pit.

But here’s where it get’s even more complicated: it’s a problem that could have been solved.

This crazy bright light is only about as half as bad as it could have been. When the company designed and built the greenhouse, it did attempt to cut back on light pollution by installing shade curtains. The problem is, the curtains they chose are porous instead of being a true blackout curtain. They only block about 50 percent of the light from the greenhouse. And that 50 percent winds up being enough light pollution to pack a town hall meeting.

“Anybody Have an Answer?”

In January of 2017, the Loudon Planning Board met for their regularly scheduled Thursday evening meeting. It’s important to note here that Henry Huntington, CEO of Lēf Farms, is on the planning board, so the first thing he did wass recuse himself from the discussion and take a seat in the front row.  Now usually, these meetings are small town government at its most idyllic (which is to say, unremarkable). But instead of sleepy talk talk of zoning amendments and easements, it was standing room only... to bitch about the lights.

“What’s this going to do to property values, for the realtors. Who is going to want to buy a house in London when the sun is out at midnight?” said Loudon resident Skip. “I want to know what the plan is from the planning board on cutting these lights back. You guys got a plan, have you talked it over? What’s the plan, planning board? Anybody got an answer? What are you going to do about the lights? Anybody have an answer?”

This went on for about 30 minutes. People like Skip, standing up and asking pointed questions about whether Lēf farms had the right permits, which the planning board kept saying they did.

Was an environmental impact study done? No.

A regional impact study? No.

Were planning boards in other towns notified? No.

Does Loudon have a dark sky ordinance on the books? Again, no.

And finally, after everyone who wanted to say their piece had said it, Henry Huntington stood up. And he turned to the audience and he asked for their understanding. “We built a business that is extremely sustainable. It is answering the question for folks that are looking for local food production, instead of having all their food grown in California and trucked across the country. It’s all these things that are really good for the region. The last thing we thought was that this as going to be a problem.”

But here’s the thing: the Huntington family have been in the greenhouse business for 40 years. They own other financially successful greenhouses in Loudon that grow flowers. And neighbors of those greenhouses have complained about light pollution. That’s in part why they installed the shade curtains to begin with. They just didn’t opt for the really thick ones, and because of how the assembly line is set up, you can’t get to the shades without shutting down the whole operation. And that’s likely the mistake Henry is really kicking himself over.

We built a business that is extremely sustainable. It is answering the question for folks that are looking for local food production, instead of having all their food grown in California and trucked across the country. It’s all these things that are really good for the region. The last thing we thought was that this was going to be a problem.
— Henry Huntington

He continued, “I apologize for where we are at. We’ve made a huge investment in this operation, I can’t afford to shut down and do this now. It would require me to completely shut down to be able to do this, and so that is why I’m asking for some patience, to be able to get this done.”

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Local Isn't Always Best When it Comes to Carbon

Which brings up this question: why are we trying to grow a plant that doesn’t survive a frost in a place where it’s freezing 5 months out of the year? If you’re worried about carbon emissions coming from lettuce, it takes two to four times less carbon to grow that lettuce in a place like Florida or Mexico, load it onto a truck and ship it north.

We’ve reached this point where “local is good” no matter what local is, and it sort of skips right over the fact that growing semi-tropical plants in a heated greenhouse in a place near the Canadian border has some issues.

Local Food has recently been held up as a solution to all of the problems with our food system, from carbon emissions, to bad labor practices, to massively subsidized agribusiness. But it’s important to ask yourself, what problem are you trying to solve? Because if it’s reducing carbon emissions, than buying lettuce, grown locally, in a greenhouse that operates all winter, you’re not really solving the problem.

Greenhouse growing does use water and space dramatically more efficiently, so if you’re worried about California’s water issues or about the amount of land that we devote to agriculture, this is an alternative. And it does produce vegetables without being really exploitative of migrant workers (though it does that by cutting way back on workers in general), but those are really different problems than carbon.

We’ve reached this point where “local is good” no matter what local is, and it sort of skips right over the fact that growing semi-tropical plants in a heated greenhouse in a place near the Canadian border has some issues. But now that Americans are accustomed to eating any vegetable they like, any time of year, it’s probably too late to turn back the clock.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

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

Special thanks to Dan Barrick, the NHPR News Director for letting us borrow Todd while he worked on this story.

Music from this week’s episode came from Blue Dot Sessions, Podington Bear, Jason Leonard, and Latch Swing.

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 44: Healing Hands of Nature

Wilderness Therapy is a form of treatment that uses the natural world and wilderness settings to address behavioral and mental health issues in teens. With a history dating back to the nation’s earliest summer camps, the idea of nature as healer has deep roots. But with a tattered history of institutional abuse, patchwork oversight, and absent legislation, is this treatment option too wild to be trusted?

When Jake Duggan was fourteen, his parents sent him to sleep away camp. The camp included days-long camping trips which lasted from Thursday through Sunday. On one particular trip it rained non-stop from Thursday through Saturday. Jake remembers being soaked to the point there was no escaping it. Then, just as he and his fellow rain-soaked campers were setting up for Saturday’s dinner things started to clear.

That’s when it happened.

“I looked and I saw the sun setting and the clouds clearing, and this sounds like I’m making it up but I’m not, I turn around and there’s this giant, giant rainbow, the biggest rainbow I’ve ever seen,” Jake says. “And then a huge bald eagle flies right through the rainbow. I grabbed one of the guides and I was like, ‘This is the first time I’m feeling happy, in years.’”

For Jake, being happy was a big deal because this wasn’t an ordinary summer camp, and Jake wasn’t an ordinary camper.

We tried different medications, which only made things worse. Whatever anyone would tell us to do, we would do.
— Erin Duggan

Jake’s mom, Erin Duggan, says when Jake was growing up he would spend a lot of time outside with his dad, Tim. They started hiking the 4,000 footers in New Hampshire and in the winter months would spend their weekends skiing together.

“To this day he is the best skier I’ve ever skied with,” says Tim. “He’s a natural, incredibly gifted skier.”

As Jake got older, he started skiing more with his friends and less with his dad. Then, the winter of his eighth-grade year, Jake didn’t want to ski with his dad or his friends anymore. A few months later he was spending all his time alone, locked in his room.

pHOTO: jIMMY gUTIERREZ

pHOTO: jIMMY gUTIERREZ

“For like one whole summer, the summer after eighth grade that’s all I did,” Jake says. “It would be days that I wouldn’t go outside because it was very tough.”

“We tried different medications, which only made things worse,” says Erin. “Whatever anyone would tell us to do, we would do.”

In February of 2013, everything came to a head when Jake was hospitalized after a skiing trip. A therapist told the Duggans, “You’re not a hospital. You can’t keep him safe.”

“As parents, you’re in the middle of it,” says Tim. “It’s not the kind of research activity you wish you could do as a parent because you don’t have the bandwidth to do that.”

A consultant offed a solution the family hadn’t tried yet: Wilderness Therapy. They were pointed to a program a few hours away in Maine called Summit Achievement.

 

The Natural World’s Potential for Treatment

On the northern end of the White Mountain National Forest, Summit Achievement owns fifty acres dedicated to help struggling teens get out into wild spaces.

“I’ve lived up here in the White Mountains of New Hampshire since the 80s,” says Will White, co-founder of Summit Achievement. “People are starving for more time outdoors.”

Summit Achievement got its start twenty years ago in the mid-nineties and is considered a Wilderness Therapy camp, which means it’s more like counseling in nature than a summer camp with bonfires and s’mores.

Teens spend Monday through Wednesday on Summit’s campus attending classes and the rest of the week is spent in the backcountry camping, with lots of therapy along the way. There’s a variety of backgrounds at Summit including teachers, therapists, licensed social workers, and a labradoodle named Baxter.

I don’t think I’d be here if it wasn’t for Summit Achievement.
— Jake Duggan
 
pHOTO: jIMMY gUTIERREZ

pHOTO: jIMMY gUTIERREZ

“Many of the people who started these programs were working in traditional environments,” says Will. “I’ve worked at mental health centers, I’ve worked at boarding schools, I’ve worked at public schools, and those environments were not as powerful as the one here.”

With a childhood full of summer camps and the boy scouts, it’s no wonder Will was drawn to the natural world’s potential for treatment.

“You interview parents who send their kids to summer camp and most of them will say, ‘Wow, he or she really grew up from that experience,’” says Will. “This is the same idea but it’s much more intense and much more therapeutically focused.”

And that’s where Jake Duggan went back in 2013: depressed, suicidal, out of options.

“When you’re out in the woods, whether it’s alone or with a group of people and you’re on a backpacking trip, you have such a purpose and you’re needed for everything that happens,” says Jake. “I don’t think I’d be here if it wasn’t for Summit Achievement.”

So what exactly was it that helped Jake get better? Was it teamwork? Top-of-the line counseling? Eagles soaring through rainbows? When it comes to the field of Wilderness Therapy, the science is still out on exactly how and why some kids get better in nature. There’s even a name for it. Experts call it the black box. And while Jake emerged from that black box seemingly healed, not all Wilderness Therapy camps are created equal.

Wilderness Therapy Gone Wrong

Cynthia Clark-Harvey’s story read a lot like the Duggans – in 2001 she was the parent of a teen in distress, searching for answers, who was eventually pointed towards a Wilderness Therapy camp.

“Erica was just very bright, very talented,” Cynthia says. “We were all just kind of awed by her a lot of the time.”

Erica, the Harvey’s oldest, was an award-winning artist, competitive springboard diver, and weekly volunteer at the local animal shelter for years. Cynthia says things turned on a dime in the eighth grade.

The first sign of distress came when Cynthia and her husband, Michael, found out that Erica had begun cutting herself. Within a week they were in front of a psychologist.

“She was hospitalized just before her 15th birthday for suicidal ideations, suicidal thoughts, and suicidal behavior,” says Cynthia.

Over the next few months, Cynthia and Michael tried everything. They brought her to family therapy, a psychiatrist, entered her in a drug treatment program. Erica began to show signs of mild improvement. Then, a consultant nudged them to consider Wilderness Therapy. Cynthia dove into any published materials she could find.

We got to the parking lot and told her she was going to a Wilderness Therapy program and she was distraught, hysterical.
— Cynthia Clark-Harvey

“We culled it down to three or four places, I think I at least talked to two of them,” says Cynthia, “and then we decided to send her to Catherine Freer.”

The Catherine Freer program was based in Nevada, a short plane ride from the family’s home in Phoenix. The staff advised Cynthia and Michael not to tell Erica about the camp, with fears she’d run away–something she’d never done before. So they told her they were taking a family trip to Lake Tahoe.

“We got to the parking lot and told her she was going to a Wilderness Therapy program and she was distraught, hysterical,” says Cynthia.   

In 2007, then-California state Rep. George Miller called for a federal investigation into abusive youth programs at residential treatment facilities, which included a number of Wilderness Therapy camps.

At a hearing before the House Committee on Education and Labor, legislators, advocates for and against the industry, and parents testified. Cynthia Clark-Harvey was among those who shared their stories.  

“On May 27, 2002, the first full day of Erica’s Nevada wilderness trek,” Cynthia says, “Freer’s trusted team mistook a dire medical emergency for teenage belligerence and Erica died that afternoon from heat stroke and dehydration.”  

The day after the Harvey’s dropped off Erica at Freer’s she collapsed multiple times during the camp’s daily hike. On her last fall, she collapsed face first off the trail into rocks and scrub brush. She laid there for almost an hour as staff idly looked on. By the time Erica received advanced life support, it was too late.

Besides lacking a centralized database, the government found four widespread and specific issues from their case studies on the industry: untrained staff, misleading marketing practices, abuse before death, and negligent operating practices.

“Our story is a personal tragedy but please remember, for each family that has suffered the ultimate damage, the death of a beloved child,” says Cynthia, “there are perhaps thousands of others who have suffered physical or psychological damage and abuse.”

The government’s investigation went on to unearth thousands of cases of abuse. For Erica, she was one of three teenagers who died that year at Catherine Freer camps.

“During 2005 alone, 33 states reported 1,619 staff members involved in incidents of abuse in residential programs,” Greg Kutz, Managing Director of the Government Accountability office, said at the hearing. “[We] could not identify a more concrete number of allegations because [we] could not locate a single web site, federal agency, or other entity that collects comprehensive nationwide data.”

Besides lacking a centralized database, the government found four widespread and specific issues from their case studies on the industry: untrained staff, misleading marketing practices, abuse before death, and negligent operating practices.

Another issue the investigation focused in on was the prices of these camps. Catherine Freer’s total cost was over $11,000 for 21 days back in 2002, or $523 per day. Even Summit Achievement, Jake’s camp, runs north of $500 per day - which brings his four months of treatment to approximately $60,000.

The explosion of Wilderness Therapy camps in the late 80s and early 90s were two-fold. First, was the increased demand for teen treatment after the closure of many inpatient psych hospitals and substance abuse treatment centers aimed at adolescents. Second was  the draw of an industry with incredible profit margins, low overhead cost, and little barrier-to-entry.

Those inside the field like to delineate between two types of camps, therapeutic camps and harsher, boot-camp models, which often fall under court-ordered or adjudicated camps. While a core group of the industry only considers the therapeutic camps true Wilderness Therapy camps, there is no governing body.

So along with financial inequality in access to treatment, there’s also a wide racial gap when it comes to who attends the therapeutic camps versus adjudicated camps. In the higher-end, private Wilderness programs, like Summit Achievement, three quarters of clients are white males. At the harsher adjudicated programs, that same demographic makes up less than half the population.

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“Troubled Teens”

These camps and programs hold appeal to parents of kids in desperate situations, with some branding themselves as camps or schools for “troubled teens.” This was an attractive option for Dynesha Lax, who, back in 2012 found herself in a position similar to the Duggans and the Harveys.

After making her 14-year old son Alonta wear a sign detailing his bad behavior, local news stations quickly picked up the story. Not long after that, multiple daily talk shows called the family to book Dynesha and her son on their shows. She decided to go on Dr. Drew Pinsky’s brief daytime show called Lifechangers with the hope he would have advice for how to corral her young teen.

That day on the show, another guest of Pinsky's was Ephraim Hanks, Clinical Director at Diamond Ranch Academy. That’s a boarding school in Utah that sells itself as: “The Top School for Troubled Teens.” And he was there to offer Alonta free tuition for a year at the school.

“I didn’t think sending him with two complete strangers who don’t know anything about him was helping him,” she says.

Dynesha didn’t send Alonta away and she said felt bamboozled. After the show, Diamond Ranch upped their offer, saying they’d take Alonta for up to two years. So when she got back to her hotel, she did what any curious person would do, she Googled the school.

I didn’t think sending him with two complete strangers who don’t know anything about him was helping him.
— Dynesha Lax

“I started reading how one kid had died there and one kid wrote how his shoes and his clothes were taken from him,” Dynesha recalls, “and how they were ridiculed by the staff and couldn’t have outside function with their family or anything.”

The year after Dynesha refused their offer, a camper committed suicide while attending Diamond Ranch. This past February, a staffer was charged and sentenced to twenty-two and a half years in federal prison for producing child pornography.

Diamond Ranch didn’t return our calls requesting comment, but a court of law has never found them guilty of abuses, and their website is filled with positive testimonials. But in that moment, none of that mattered to Dynesha. She read the negative reviews and was confident she had made the right decision.

The term “troubled teen” is usually a catch-all for kids dealing with behavioral issues, mental health issues, and/or substance-misuse issues. It should also be a warning sign. One common problem found with programs using this term is a catch-all approach to services provided, instead of an individualized approach, which is crucial to long-term improvement.

“The thing I always recommend when parents contact me,” says Maia Szalvita, author of Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids, "is, start with a complete psychiatric evaluation by somebody who is not affiliated with any program or anything like that.”

She says the term “troubled teen” reveals a lot about how the industry is structured, but it tells us nothing about the issues these kids are dealing with.

We know that if you isolate vulnerable people, people with disabilities, children, away from society you will end up with institutional abuse. And so the only reason to use a residential facility is when you have no alternative.
— Maia Szalvita

“If your child has a specific problem, you want to get help for that specific problem,” says Szalavitz. “Basically, if you are going to work with troubled teens that genuinely need residential care, there is absolutely no way to make a profit if you hire professionals that are appropriately qualified.”

She argues that nature in and of itself is not meant to be used as a primary treatment option since there’s no science proving its efficacy. She also says that the proliferation of these camps and schools leads to more serious systemic issues.

“We know that if you isolate vulnerable people, people with disabilities, children, away from society you will end up with institutional abuse,” says Szalvitz. “And so the only reason to use a residential facility is when you have no alternative.”

While she concedes that there is science behind the restorative properties of green space and time spent in nature, she says the industry of Wilderness Therapy is still too wild to trust.

“In the current unregulated environment where you can’t have unannounced inspections, and where there isn’t enough people to even do that oversight in the states that do have some regulations,” says Szalvitz, “you’re going to end up with the same problems repeating themselves.”

But what is a parent to do when they’re out of options and are trying to save their child?

“A lot of times parents feel like when someone offers them some place to go, that’s the right way to go,” says Dynesha. “But I can’t really say that, because even after the show, Alonta did go into placement for a total of 14 months and it actually made his life worse.”

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What Role Does Nature Play in Mental Health Care?

When it comes to the field of Wilderness Therapy, people inside the industry believe there’s been honest change since the government’s investigation a decade ago.

“I do think that report was a kindling to say, wow, we need to do better,” says Dr. Anita Tucker. “We’re not perfect, we know we still have such a ways to go, we’re just in such a holistically different place than we were ten years ago.”

Doctors Mike Gass and , the Association of Experiential Education’s 2016 Distinguished Researchers, are professors at the University of New Hampshire. They’re also the leadership behind the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Center (OBHC), which was established in 2015 to improve the field through best practices and evidence-based research.

Last year the center published 20 scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals–even in some journals that wouldn’t have touched the industry a decade ago. They’ve also put together an 85-page analysis of what a healthy wilderness program looks like. It’s the most comprehensive benchmark in the industry today. The OBHC includes twenty-two wilderness programs that have met that standard.

We’re not perfect, we know we still have such a ways to go, we’re just in such a holistically different place than we were ten years ago.
— Dr. Anita Tucker

Today, one of the most pressing issues for the OBHC and its programs is cost. They envision Wilderness Therapy as a primary care option with broad acceptance and for that to happen, more people need access to treatment.

“It’s heartbreaking to see families spend their [child’s] college tuition to pay for these programs or mortgage their house,” says Gass. “It would be great if we could turn this around and it could earn the type of reimbursement that I believe should happen for third party payments.”

Starting this July, OBHC’s billing code officially kicks in, which will allow for third party reimbursements for selective camps. And unlike the industry’s fly-by-night history of the past, Gass says this process took ten years of highly-detailed documentation.

While major inroads to credibility are being made, the center still has to contend with unpacking the black box and answering the question: What role does nature play in mental healthcare?

“We’ve got a good idea that it’s got a lot to do with the group work that’s done and a lot of work that the adventure brings and using that as a change function,” says Gass. “But, then we kind of go, is it nature, is it exercise, is it good food, is it mindfulness? We don’t really know what concepts are responsible for the types of changes were seeing.”

And until that happens, it may be a hard-sell towards legitimizing the field against a backdrop of abuse, absent legislation, and patch-work oversight.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

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

Special thanks to Dr. Nicki Bush of ASTART, Alpinist Grant Stathem, and outdoor risk management expert, Ross Clouthier.

Music from this week’s episode came from Sometimes Why, Montplaisir, Blue Dot Sessions, Podington Bear, and Uncanny Valleys.

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 43: After the Flood

Times Beach was a town that was wiped off the map by an environmental disaster. But once the houses and streets were gone, the town was wiped away a second time, this time in a way that may make it difficult to learn from the mistakes of the past.

US Geological survey map from 1947 with Times Beach highlighted. | Source: USGS.gov

US Geological survey map from 1947 with Times Beach highlighted. | Source: USGS.gov

Marilyn Leistner knew the drill when it came to floods. In her hometown of Times Beach, Missouri—a small town that hugged the Meramec River outside St. Louis—flooding was a fact of life. Every time the waters rose, she and her family would put the furniture up on concrete blocks and tie up the drapes just in case, but the water almost never got into their home.  

But the flood of 1982 was different. 

“We barely got out with our lives,” Marilyn says. “We were at the last minute—with the floodwaters lapping at the front porch—putting things up in a safe place.” 

With the water rising fast, Marilyn, her husband, one of their daughters, and the family’s dog all got on a boat to leave. The water was swift, and a pallet rushing by hit the motor. It knocked out the forward gears and they had to escape in reverse, but they motored to safety through the streets of the flooded town. 

Times Beach was a close knit working-class neighborhood of about 2,000 people, many of whom worked at the Chrysler plant just down the highway. There was a baseball diamond where the hometown team, The Sons of the Beach, played. It was the kind of place where kids grew up to marry their high school sweethearts and stayed to start a family.  

But when the floodwaters crested 24 feet above normal on December 6, 1982 all of that was underwater. It was a 500-year flood; homes were wrecked, heirlooms and photo albums ruined.  

“I was really devastated,” Marilyn says. “Sometime through the flood event [the] back door on our home came open and a lot of stuff floated out. I have no pictures of my kids back then.” 

She didn’t yet know it then but they would lose a lot more than just those old photos. Marilyn and her family would never live in their home again or in Times Beach for that matter. No one would. But not because of the flood.  

The Men in White Suits

As the water receded after the 1982 floods, when people would typically be getting ready to clean up, rebuild, reclaim their homes, the people of Times Beach got some bad news. Times Beach was about to be the site of one of the biggest environmental cleanups in U.S. history.   

The beginning of the end of Times Beach actually started 10 years before. In the summer of 1971 dozens of horses in the area started to die. Next, birds and cats started to drop dead, and a few months later, two little girls came down with a mysterious illness. At first it seemed like the flu, with headaches and diarrhea, but then one day the family had to rush one of their daughters to the hospital with terrible stomach pain: it turned out her bladder was inflamed and bleeding. Other people started getting nasty symptoms too: nausea, headaches, hair loss.

Federal health officials launched an investigation but ten years went by without much action. That is, until November 1982, just before the flood, when the men in white suits showed up in Times Beach.  

Marilyn remembers it like something out of a science-fiction movie. “Kids were out there playing in regular clothes—shorts, no shoes—and here are these men in these moon suits taking soil samples,” she says. “It was scary.” Another longterm Times Beach resident, Cindy Reid, says the workers in hazmat suits on her street wouldn’t say why they were taking samples.  

But the 2000 residents of Times Beach didn’t have time to worry about the men in the moon suits. They had a bigger problem on their hands: the river.  

Just weeks after the EPA started testing the soil, heavy rain hit Times Beach, and didn’t stop for four days. Cindy, her son Michael, and her husband Nick, watched as the flood waters rose through the town. The water was warm, she remembers, as it rose around her ankles and then her knees and finally her chest. They decided to leave.  

Cindy and her family walked four miles to a dry spot overlooking Times Beach. The town was wrecked. The streets where Michael and the other kids would have block-wide snowball fights and the field where the Sons of the Beach softball team played was sitting under swirling, muddy river water. The grocery store where Cindy would do the family’s shopping was gone. There was five feet of river water lapping at the walls of their living room. 

Looking over the flooded town below, Cindy’s family tried to figure out what they would do next. They took a vote between them and decided to stay and rebuild. “You do what you have to do,” she says.   

But they never got that chance. On December 23, 1982, federal and state authorities told everyone to evacuate Times Beach. If residents already left their homes, they were told not to come back.

That’s because the men in white suits had found something: there were dangerously high levels of something called dioxin on the streets of Times Beach. Dioxin is a toxic byproduct of a lot of chemicals but it’s best known as an ingredient in Agent Orange.

The U.S. military used a herbicide called Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. It’s been linked to skin burns, cancer, and liver failure in veterans. Mothers who were exposed to it had babies with terrible birth defects. Experts found levels of this stuff in Times Beach that were 100 times higher than what was considered safe.

So, how did dioxin end up in a small town in Missouri?  

The Making of a Superfund Site

Well, like a lot of small towns with modest budgets, most of the roads in Times Beach were unpaved and dirt roads can get dusty. Back then, one cost-efficient way to control the dust was to spray motor oil on the roads.  

And that’s where a waste-oil hauler named Russell Martin Bliss comes into the story. A chemical plant in southwest Missouri hired Russell to dispose of waste from the facility. Now, guess what this factory used to produce? Agent Orange. Russell has always claimed he didn’t know the sludge he had was dangerous and so he did what he had always done before: mixed the sludge with waste oil and started spraying. He sprayed it at stables, church parking lots, his own farm, and the dirt roads in Times Beach.

Cindy remembers the neighborhood kids used to ride their bikes behind the Russell’s truck as he sprayed the roads. “There wasn't a kid down there who didn't wear that oil,” she says.

In 1983—just a few months after the flood—and shortly after the guys in white suits discovered dangerously high levels of dioxin in its soil, Times Beach was named one of the first Superfund sites in the United States.

If you’re like most people, and only have a nebulous idea of what the Superfund law actually entails, here’s a quick history lesson. People back in the 1970s and 1980s were really freaked out by toxic waste—and rightly so. There were two cases in particular that made headlines. One of them is called Love Canal, which was a town in western New York outside of Niagara Falls where toxic waste had been buried for years. A local school was built on top of the waste dump, and the result was disastrous. There was also the so-called Valley of the Drums near Louisville, Kentucky. The name kind of says it all: thousands of barrels piled up in shallow pits leaking toxic waste into the groundwater.

US Geological survey map from 1985, with Times Beach highlighted. | Source: USGS.gov

US Geological survey map from 1985, with Times Beach highlighted. | Source: USGS.gov

So, in response to these and other cases, President Jimmy Carter signed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 that set aside a “superfund” of more than $1.5 billion to clean up these places. The money is also used to buyout the people who were living in these dangerously polluted areas because—let’s face it—nobody is going to buy a house in a toxic waste dump. And that’s what the government did next: buyout the folks who lived in Times Beach.

In 1985 the last family left. By this time, Marilyn was mayor but she was a mayor with no town. The city disincorporated. Times Beach was officially a ghost town. 

The Cleanup 

When Gary Pendergrass, the project coordinator for the cleanup, arrived in Times Beach the first time he found an eerie sight.  

“There were a lot of Christmas decorations outside in the yards,” he remembers. “A lot of the houses were like the people had just basically stood up and walked out and never came back.”  

Now that everyone was out of the town, the cleanup could begin.  

The EPA’s plan said that everything had to go. Bulldozers rolled through the streets of Times Beach knocking down homes and shops. All the debris—from the abandoned Christmas decorations to the town’s water tower—was gathered and piled in a mound that covered four football fields.

One afternoon, Marilyn points out the unassuming grass-covered hill that holds the remains of the town.  

“In that mound are all the homes, everything that was precious to the people who lived here,” she says, driving past it and the empty land around it that once was the town.  

The EPA buried the debris from Times Beach under a watertight barrier and capped it with a foot of clean soil. It took less than a year to tear down the 700 some odd buildings in the town. The technical name for that mound is a sarcophagus: a tomb for an entire town. 

Anything that wasn’t buried was burned. And there was a lot to burn. The newly razed town of Times Beach became the home of a giant incinerator dedicated to burning the dioxin out of the contaminated soil from Times Beach and more than two dozen other sites sprayed by Russell Bliss.  

“We’re not talking about a big bonfire,” says David Shorr, who was the director of the MIssouri Department of Natural Resources during the cleanup.  

“We’re talking about dirt and there was a lot of dirt!” he laughs.  

Any soil that had more than 10 parts per billion of dioxin was burned at temperatures as high as 2,000 F. Soil with less than 10 parts per billion of dioxin was buried under 12-inches of clean dirt. All told, more than 250,000 tons of soil was processed at Times Beach.  

So, picture that scene: homes razed, streets are all torn up. All the material is feeding into either a giant tomb in the ground or the fiery maw of an incinerator. It sounds like some kind of hellscape, right?

But, during all this, something else was happening. Mother Nature was taking over.  

“I remember sitting in Times Beach, a beautiful sunny day with one of my good friends and colleagues, John Young, who was responsible for the project,” remembers David, “and we were eating lunch and we’re both looking at each other going, be a hell of a park.”  

That’s right. Times Beach—the Superfund site—was about to become a Missouri State Park.  

 

From Superfund to State Park 

Photo: Zach Dyer

Photo: Zach Dyer

It might seem crazy—turning a place that was once so polluted that an entire town had to be bulldozed into a park—but it happens all the time. According to the EPA, as of 2011 there were more than 100 cleaned up Superfund sites in use as recreational green space. That means parks, soccer pitches, baseball diamonds. 

So if it’s safe enough for a park, why not just build homes on it again? Well, while the surface is safe there’s still this layer of moderately dioxin-laced soil just a foot below. Officials don’t want people digging around out there. The idea is for people to visit but not stay.

“People are not supposed to be living in state parks,” says David. “You can come every day and still not get the exposures that would be there for somebody who’s living there or an exposure that would put you at risk.” 

The cleanup work was finished in 1997 after 12 years and more than $200 million. So, with the remediation complete, a decision had to be made: What to call this newly-minted state park?

David had his doubts about embracing the site’s history directly.  

“A cleaned up waste site alone is not a theme for a state park, but it’s Route 66,” David says,  referring to the historic U.S. highway that forms the southern border of the erstwhile town.  

Route 66 State Park opened to the public in 1999.

Marilyn was happy to see the land safe and open to the public but she has some misgivings about the attempt to move past the stigma around the town of Times Beach. 

“With the former residents it's like they feel like they have wiped out everything that they knew and loved here,” she says. “That's part of the reason why there are residents who won't come here anymore. There are residents that wouldn't come back here for any reason.” 

Photo: Zach Dyer

Photo: Zach Dyer

Visitors to the park today won’t see any information or signs on the grounds that say the town of Times Beach was ever there. There’s nothing but a few groundwell monitors sticking out of the unmarked landfill.

There is a visitor center for the Route 66 State Park. Inside there is a small display about Times Beach with photos of what the town used to look like and there is a bit about the dioxin scare. A plaque commemorates it as “one of America's greatest triumphs over environmental disasters.”

But to get to that exhibit, visitors would need to walk into the back of the center, past a gift shop and nostalgic neon road signs for gasoline and restaurants. And that’s only if they knew to drive a couple miles down the highway from the actual park and, well, it’s just not much.

“I think everybody from the Beach kind of thought that visitor's center would have a lot more,” says Cindy Reid. “Times Beach was there and it was a place and it's not anything to be ashamed of that you're from there.” 

“The dioxin part is a half inch,” she says. “The history part and the family part is two foot. So why should this half inch overrun everything that went before it?” 

It’s easy to lose sight of the story of Times Beach in favor of the park that’s there today, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Just 30 minutes north there’s another park that was also once a Superfund site. It’s called Weldon Spring. It’s a former munitions factory that processed uranium ore as part of the Manhattan Project during World War II.  

But at Weldon Spring, the site’s history is celebrated, not hidden. There’s a 10,000 square-foot museum. Tourists are encouraged to hike to the top of the concrete dome that caps off the radioactive waste. There’s even a nice view of the Missouri River.

The sarcophagus at Weldon Spring isn’t a tomb. It’s a plaque. And by comparison Times Beach feels like a coverup.

It’s not hard to understand why someone would want to highlight the role Weldon Spring played in developing the atomic bomb and sidestep around the story of dioxin and Times Beach. But the story of Times Beach—of the people who lost everything—has a lot to say when it comes to problems we’re still wrestling with today: things like, how do we responsibly get rid of toxic waste? Who’s keeping an eye on it? And what’s at stake if something goes terribly, terribly wrong like it did in Times Beach?

If we don’t know about it, aren’t we just destined to repeat it? Marilyn Leistner thinks so. 

“There are times when I go out that the name Times Beach comes up and people don't know about Times Beach. They've never heard of it. Probably you didn’t until you got to research it [...] It's coming up on 35 years since the dual disasters and I go to the schools and I talk to the students in the 7th and 8th grade; freshmen and sophomores in high school. And, the teachers do it because it was an environmental disaster that they want their students to know that happened. And that these things can happen. And it's part of history.”

A part of history just as long as there’s somebody still alive to tell it.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

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

Special thanks to Ylan Vo and David Havlick for their insights on Superfund sites.

Music from this week’s episode came from Kimashoo Aoi, Ari de Niro, Podington Bear and Blue Dot Sessions.

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 42: Eat the Invaders & Ask Sam Round-up

This week we attempt to not only eat the invaders, but drink them as well. And this time, most of us were on board. Also, the Ask Sam hotline gets some attention as Sam answers questions about bird feeders, black flies, storm clouds, and dew.

Eat/Drink the Invaders

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. Plus we put some in between two slices of bread which was weird, but not that weird.


Ask Sam Round-Up

Since we launched the toll free version of our Ask Sam hotline, 1-844-GO-OTTER (844-466-8837), people have been calling day and night with all manner of questions for Sam about the outdoor world. This time we talk to two different Sarahs (Saras? Or is it Sarah and Sara? Or vice versa?) one about birds, the other about black flies. Then Sam answers a question about thunderstorms and the clouds that accompany them, plus uncovers the mystery behind dew. So pop some popcorn, settle in, and get ready for the Ask Sam round-up.

Question 1: Sarah from Albuquerque, NM asks:

"I have a lot of bird feeders in my yard and I really like to watch the song birds, and my indoor cats chatter at them through the window. But a co-worker told me that feeding the birds, even if it's high quality bird food is actually harmful for them, because it makes them stay in places longer then they normally would if they are migratory, that it disrupts their natural diet. So is that true? Am I hurting the song birds in our eco-system by putting out bird feeders? Tell me if I'm a bird killer or not."

This is a question that has preoccupied the “don’t mess with the ecosystem” wing of the environmental movement for a long time. And there are three concerns:

1. Are We Messing With Their Migration?

Are we encouraging birds that should be migrating to stay in place, when they should be migrating? We’re worried about this because if they leave their summer range too late maybe they will suffer later in their migration: starve to death… freeze to death… get eaten by winter weasels… something. The counterpoint to this concern is that birds likely start migrating based on the change of the seasons—shorter days, colder temperatures—not availability of food.

2. Are They Getting More Diseases From Hanging Out At the Feeder?

When birds are all packed together because they’re clamoring to get these delicious seeds and nuts, are they then transmitting diseases to each other that they wouldn’t normally get? The worry here is that disease might lead to higher mortality than if the birds had to fend for themselves.

3. Are We Making Them Dependent Upon Us For Food?

Finally, what if you feed birds religiously for years, and then you move away or are kidnapped by pirates and suddenly the bird feeders vanish? Will the birds be dependent on you feeding them and not know how to feed themselves while you’re away?

Thankfully this question has been studied. (Thank goodness for science, or else we would have to call this segment “How the Hell Should Sam Know?”) The study that I found that seemed to best address the first two concerns was done using data from something called Project Feederwatch, which used data from backyard birdwatchers to assess the state of bird species that regularly hang around bird feeders. Think about it, if feeding birds were causing them to die while migrating or die from disease, you would expect the populations of the birds that eat at feeders to decline… right? Because it’s bad for them, right?

But that’s not the case, usually they’re doing just about the same, or maybe slightly better than the birds that never visit feeders.

And on the last point: do birds get dependent on feeders? This was tested twice on chickadees in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. They set out feeders for a whole bunch of chickadees and then after two years of feeding them, they took the feeders away.

The result? No effect. Chickadees in the areas that lost their feeders and the ones that kept their feeders had the same survival rates.

So, are you a bird killer? All evidence points to “No.” For now, feed with a clear conscience!


Question 2: Sara from Dunnsville, VA asks

"I have several friends who have hiked the Appalachian trail, thru-hik ed it, and another friend who's about to start, and she's starting up in Maine in June and we were talking about how she needs to get a head net to protect herself from all the black flies in Maine and in other parts of the Northeast. So my question is, why are black flies such a problem up in the Northeast, but they're not really problematic at all down here in the south?"

I love this question so much. I used to lead Wilderness Trips up in this region and I remember evenings when the black flies were so bad that we would spend the whole afternoon cowering in our tents, or cook dinner swathed in rain coats and rain pants even in the middle of summer. I remember a camper who had never been exposed to black flies before, was bit so many times her eyes nearly swelled shut the next day. So if you’ve never experienced a proper black fly swarm, be warned: when it happens, it’s intense and terrible.

The truth is, as Elmer Gray of the North American of Black Fly Association told me, there are black flies in the south, but there aren’t swarms of them. In places where the winters and therefore the streams and rivers are colder, the black fly season is short and concentrated. This is because the cold slows the development of the fly larva, and makes it so that the flies can only lay eggs once per year (they are “univoltine”) instead of the black flies in warmer parts of the world that can develop faster and have more than one generation per year (“bivoltine” or “multivoltine”).

In other words, we cram an entire year’s worth of black flies into one, three-week long, black fly season, as all of the black flies in the region race to come out from the rivers, find something to bite, and then mate and lay eggs so the next generation can start to mature again as quickly as possible, and do it all again the next year.

And if you start the Appalachian Trail in reverse in June, you’re headed straight into the belly of that beast. Oh, and haven’t you heard? Less river pollution means black flies are doing better than decades ago. Steel yourself.


Question 3: Margie from Concord asks

"A couple of years ago, I started noticing that the clouds just seemed enormous, just towering high. And maybe they're the same as they always have been and always will be, but my first thought was: 'There go our icebergs.' I just wondered if there is any connection between icebergs melting and cloud formation, height of clouds, volume of clouds."

Those clouds that you’re referring to are called cumulonimbus clouds: they’re the big piles of clouds shaped like anvils that create lightning storms, and while there are several ways these storms can form, the most important ingredients are hot air mass rising up through a cold air mass in a process called “convection.”

Now the question of how will climate change effect clouds is a very, very complicated one that is being worked on by lots of smart climatologists creating detailed and complicated climate models. But in general terms, the thing to remember is that warm air can hold more moisture, and so it’s a safe bet that a warmer globe will mean more clouds.

Now at the same time, we have an observed that here in the Northeast, over the past 50 years or so, the number of rain storms that drop 2 inches of rain in 24 hours have increased by 71%. And not only that, but Jonathan Winter, a Dartmouth climate scientist has looked at this data and recently found that most of this increase came in one large “step” that occurred mostly all around the late 90s. That sounds like the kind of thing that someone like Margie would notice!

Winter says a lot of these extreme rain events were in the summer, so it’s a good bet that a good chunk of them were these “convective” (*ahem* thunder) storms. BUT, his next study is to look more precisely into what kind of storms are on the rise. So we need only wait until that study comes out to answer Margie’s question for sure.

Now… are those clouds *actually* our icebergs? Meh, who knows.


Question 4: Emily from Tuscaloosa, AL asks:

"I'm a preschool teacher and I was taking my kids out onto the playground this morning, and we always have to check to see if the playground is wet, and since we go out so early, the ground is always wet because there's dew on the ground. I was just curious as to what causes the dew, because it can not rain overnight, and I know it has something to do with a drop in temperature at night, but what cause dew to fall down on our ground." 

This is one of those questions that I really like because answering it helps you to understand one of those fundamental properties of the world that shapes all sorts of little things that affect you.

So, for starters, there’s water in the air, and some days there is more water than other days. You know this as humidity. However, that dew exists flows from a single fact: the warmer the air is, the more water that air can hold.

Maybe you’ve heard of the “dew point” in some weather forecast or another. The dew point is the temperature at which dew will begin to form in the overnight hours. So say it’s summer-time in Alabama and the air is warm and humid. But then the sun goes away and that warm air starts to cool. Eventually it will cool so much that it won’t be able to hold all that water, and some of it will fall out (or precipitate!) as dew!

Graph of Dewpoint vs. Air Temperature at Varying Relative Humidities. Based on the Magnus-Tetens approximation.

Graph of Dewpoint vs. Air Temperature at Varying Relative Humidities. Based on the Magnus-Tetens approximation.

So what does this mean for your life? It means when you see a high dew point, you know that the air is pretty full of water and maybe you’re gonna want to turn on the air conditioner, or if it’s insufferably humid, you know that will be a bad night to sleep outside, because you’re going to get absolutely drenched.

Oh, and also! Once you know about dew point, you’re equipped to understand another weather number: relative humidity. When you see a relative humidity of 100%, that means you’re right at the dew point, the air can hold no more water, and water is condensing out of the air and evaporating into the air at exactly the same rate. This number is “relative” because it takes less water to fully saturate the air at lower temperatures, so 100% relative humidity when it’s 40 degrees out won’t feel particularly swampy.

What other ways does this knowledge help you? Why do your glasses get foggy when you walk inside in the winter? Moist warm air hits the cold glass and the moisture falls out all over your lenses. Why does your cold beer get covered with condensation? Warm air hits cold beer. Why is there frost on the inside of your window? I could literally keep going all day with these.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

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

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 41: S.O.S.

Global Rescue is a business that, should you get yourself into trouble, will drop everything to come and save you, anywhere in the world. They employ former Navy Seals, helicopters, airplanes, and even yaks to get the job done. But this service comes at a price, and when disaster strikes, is it fair that a service that won’t save everyone can rush in pull out those who can afford it?

Say you’re going on an adventure somewhere you’ve never been before, you don’t speak the language, and you don’t feel 100 percent safe. You’re nervous about getting stranded on a glacier, or getting bitten by a poisonous snake, or maybe you just really want to avoid traveler’s diarrhea. You’re worried that if you’re not even sure how to ask for a hospital, you won’t know where you would turn for help. Hmm. This could go badly.  

Cancel the trip? 

Well, wait. A little company called Global Rescue might be able to give you a hand.

Running Out of Time on Top of the World

Mount Everest | Photo: Gunther Hageitner

Mount Everest | Photo: Gunther Hageitner

Robert Kay summited Everest on May 19th, 2016. The skies were clear and sunny and there wasn’t much wind. Stepping foot onto the summit was something Kay had been dreaming of since he was 15 years old. He was so elated, he barely felt the cold. Kay reached the top, along with two days worth of climbers, because bad weather the day before had caused a backup. At points the hiker traffic was so thick that Kay and his team were stalled for ten or fifteen minutes at a time.

But he made it. Fulfilled his dream. And then started down the mountain

The going was slow. Too slow. Coming down from the summit to the south summit is about a 15 or 20 minute trip normally, but it took Kay and his Sherpas two hours because of crowding on the trail. And, to make matters worse, Kay began to have trouble breathing.

“Imagine putting a plastic bag over your face and tightening it up,” he says. “That’s how it feels. It’s like breathing through a garden hose. You’ve got 50 feet of garden hose and you’re underwater and you’re trying to suck air through this thing and you just can’t get enough air.”

Kay was developing a severe case of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, or “HAPE.” It’s the lungs’ response to getting too little air for too long: ;they start filling up with fluid and eventually you drown.  

Image Credit: Robert and Talbot Trudeau

Image Credit: Robert and Talbot Trudeau

He spent the night in Camp 4, at about 26,000 feet, where his friends kept him awake, so he wouldn’t go into shock,  and gave him medications to get him alive  through to morning. The next day, the team made the long, nearly vertical climb from Camp 4 to Camp 2, with Kay’s Sherpas and teammates unclipping and clipping Kay from every anchor point on the mountain and carrying his pack. At one point they had to switch out his oxygen tank for a new one and taking away that last bit of oxygen nearly did him in.

“I started convulsing and spasming on the ground and I couldn’t even sit up,” he remembers. He says he thought to himself: “I’m going to die in the next few seconds.” 

But he didn’t die. Because someone was there to intervene.

In the Business of Saving Lives

Before Kay left for Everest, he bought a membership with a company called Global Rescue. It’s a New Hampshire-based company, with offices around the world, that provides medical evacuations, security extractions, information and intelligence, and virtual health care systems in the U.S. and abroad.  

It’s like breathing through a garden hose. You’ve got 50 feet of garden hose and you’re underwater and you’re trying to suck air through this thing and you just can’t get enough air.
— Robert Kay

CEO Dan Richards founded the company  in 2004 and he explains that a membership is structured, “a little bit like AAA, but not for your car, for your body.” If something goes wrong, you can call them. They will direct you to local hospitals and provide all the consultation you need to get properly treated. They’ve partnered with doctors at Johns Hopkins, so they are ready to dish out top-notch advice to their clients over the phone or via Skype if needed, and if something goes seriously wrong, Global Rescue will come and get you out of the field, stabilize you, and bring you all the way back home.

All that for $329 a year.

Although a membership with Global Rescue doesn’t cover the cost of treatment (it’s not medical insurance), it’s a good deal if you want to avoid the hefty cost of a private helicopter rescue, which could add up to $15-20,000. The company also provides security services for an additional fee, in case you’re traveling somewhere that erupts into war or civil unrest. Their employees rescued clients trapped in Alexandria, Cairo, and parts of Tunisia during the uprisings there in 2011, as well as after the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.  

CEO of Global Rescue, Dan Richards, participating in the Global Rescue Readiness Test | Photo courtesy of Global Rescue

Last year Global Rescue had about one million clients, ranging from individuals, to NASA, the U.S. Government, and National Geographic.

And who are the super humans rescuing all these people? 

Many of their employees come from a military background, and they go through some intense training to make sure they’re up for the task. They even have a biennial office-wide fitness test, just in case anyone has been slacking since they got hired. 

Besides the manpower they have to get things done, they also have the resources. Between helicopters and fixed-wing airplanes, Global Rescue has thousands of aircraft around the world under contract. Additionally, they use all sorts of ground transportation, ambulances, vans—you name it. And Dan Richards says if the weather is too bad, or if motorized vehicles can’t reach the patient, “we’ll put them on a yak or a horse, sometimes accompanied by one of our personnel, as soon as possible.”

Global Rescue will come get you anywhere in the world…except North Korea.

Not all their clients need rescues, which is the reason they make any money at all. Most people go on their trips, it goes smoothly, and they never need the backup. But occasionally, something does go very wrong. Which brings us back to Robert Kay, who is near the top of Mount Everest.

Here Comes the Cavalry

As Kay’s lungs began filling with fluid, he realized he didn’t have much time left.

“At that point,” he remembers, “it just became an interesting fact. It was like, ‘huh, I get to know where and when I die, that’s interesting; the pain’s going to stop—that’s good.’ I didn’t even care that I was about to die.”

But fortunately he never had to face that fate. At 21,000 feet, Global Rescue sent a helicopter to pick up Robert Kay.

Kay says it was like seeing the cavalry coming. “You don’t know for sure if you’re going to live or die for 48 hours, and all of a sudden, you know, guaranteed, you’re going to make it.”

[Global Rescue Plans are] a little bit like AAA, but not for your car, for your body.
— Dan Richards

They flew Kay to a small clinic in Luklah, a town at the base of Everest. From there he was transferred to a bigger hospital in Kathmandu, where he rested and recovered before he caught a flight back to the United States.

And the remarkable thing is that Global Rescue’s work with Kay didn’t stop there. Although Kay expected them to drop him off and say, “we’ll pay the bills, good luck,” they didn’t. “They came to visit me in the hospital everyday,” Kay says, “just to check on me and see how I was doing. They were an amazing group of people. It wasn’t simply ‘pay the claim and move on,’ it was how were you doing as a person.”

And that seems to be the story from the majority of their clients—that Global Rescue really cares.

But parts of this story get tricky, too. Hundreds of people climb Everest each year. Some of those people are signed up to get saved if something happens, and some of them are not—like the Sherpas—because they can’t pay for a service like Global Rescue. Out of about 280 people that have died on Everest, an estimated 114 of them have been Sherpas.  

So is Global Rescue really making the mountain safer?

Ben Ayers, the Country Director for the dZi Foundation in Nepal, says maybe, but not across the board. “It’s making extreme adventure easier and safer for the privileged,” he says, “and it’s not making it easier and safer for everybody else.” 

Ayers has been helping improve working conditions for mountain porters and their communities for the past 18 years. Ben says companies like Global Rescue might be contributing to a culture of mountaineers taking greater risks than they would if they had to rescue themselves—risks that could endanger lives besides their own.

This leads us to our second rescue story, where the ethical implications of getting rescued become much hazier.

A Fundamental Inequality

Courtney Christman, Emily Schlegel, a Haitian teen, and Sara Trupp build a fence. | Credit: Megan Trupp

In 2010, Courtney Christman was in her senior year of college in Pennsylvania. She’d been going to the Christ Mertz Lutheran Church in Fleetwood, PA since she was little, and had gone on a few mission trips when she was younger. She liked them so much that she decided to lead her own week-long mission trip to Haiti her senior year. Her group of 12 people from the church flew down to Croix-des-Bouquets, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. There they volunteered for a nonprofit that provides rural people educational opportunities and basic health care called “Village of Hope.”

Courtney’s group helped paint the church and spent time with children in the Village of Hope school. “You couldn’t walk somewhere without somebody giving you a hug,” she says. And although hugs might not be a measure of real impact, Courtney says she felt good about being there.  

“You get there and you start building relationships and you realize: this is where God wants me to be.”

And then, disaster.  

At 4:53 pm on January 12th, 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck just south of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. Courtney remembers this moment perfectly.

“The ground started shaking, and I remember looking at my friend Megan, thinking, ‘What is happening?’ And I heard her yell out, almost in slow-motion, ‘It’s an earthquake!’ The ground was moving and it looked like waves. It looked like ocean waves. The ground rose two or three feet in the air and then dropped.” 

Courtney and her group were back at their living accommodations after a day of work.They were staying in a complex of one-story buildings that had bunks and a kitchen. Fortunately, most of them were sitting outside.  

No one in Courtney’s group was hurt.

But many other people were. The death count is highly disputed, but ranges from 200,000 to 300,000. One million people were left homeless and an estimated 3 million people were affected. Today, 2.5 million Haitians are still in need of humanitarian aid.

Following the earthquake, Courtney and her group tried to help. But after a few days they started to get worried about their supply of food and water, and their safety. Trying to secure a ride home, Courtney took the group to the U.S. Embassy, where they were told 200 people stood ahead of them in line to get out of the country; it would take weeks for them to get out. So Courtney called her insurance company, which informed her that they had bought them a subscription to Global Rescue.  

The ground started shaking, and I remember looking at my friend Megan, thinking, ‘What is happening?’ And I heard her yell out, almost in slow-motion, ‘It’s an earthquake!’
— Courtney Christman

The earthquake was on Tuesday. On Saturday, two Global Rescue employees arrived in Haiti, and whisked the group to the airport at 5 am the next morning. In front of several hundred people waiting in Embassy lines and several thousand more who would never be able to afford to leave their ruined country, Courtney’s group boarded one of the first chartered flights out of Haiti.  

The moment she boarded the plane, Courtney says she wanted to tell the pilot, “turn around, let me out! Our work is not done.” She says she felt guilty leaving, especially because they had come to Haiti to make an impact. “It just felt like we had so much more work to do,” she says, “and we got to go home.”

Courtney and her group had come to Haiti to help spread their privilege—to give back. But when the time came, they used that same privilege to get out. 

Nealin Parker, the former Deputy Director of the Office of Transition Initiatives at the U.S. Agency for International Development, thinks this is more about the pre-existing systems of inequality than any kind of individual choice. “My experience in aid in general,” she says, “is that there is just a fundamental inequality and injustice in place. In the moments when you are getting on a plane and somebody else isn’t getting on a plane are those moments where there is the least amount you can do to fix that inequality and it is the most morally troubling.”

A Moral Question

As long as it doesn’t risk their own clients’ survival, Global Rescue does help non-members as much as they can—they’ll bring in medical supplies for free and evacuate non-members. But in the end they are not the Red Cross; they’re a business, with clients who are willing to pay for the services they offer.  

Dan Richards, the CEO of Global Rescue, thinks the choice not to insure your life raises its own moral questions. “You could argue that that is one of the most selfish things you could do, going to a place like Haiti. You could leave your family and the people who love you in the lurch.”

Still, there are people who prefer to travel without a fire escape. Mark Jenkins is the Writer in Residence for University of Wyoming, as well as contributing writer for National Geographic Magazine. He’s been on all sorts of dangerous adventures and often goes without any kind of backup.  

We’re always faced with this. This is the human condition. What do we really owe our fellow man?
— Mark Jenkins

Jenkins says, “the difficulty obviously arises when affluence gives one person a better chance of survival than another person—a person of lesser means. But this is precisely how the world works. If you get cancer in Holland your chances of survival are much higher than if you get cancer in the Congo. We are living not in the world of our choosing but in the world we have, which is packed full of the haves and the have-nots.” 

So maybe paying to insure your life is just a proxy for the greater inequities of the world? Mark Jenkins thinks so.

“We’re always faced with this. This is the human condition. What do we really owe our fellow man?”

And when it comes to saving your own life and the lives of the people you love, that question can get pretty hard to answer.

As for Dan Richards, he thinks it doesn’t need to be a question at all. “You’re talking to the wrong guy if you want an in-depth, microscopic examination of the moral implications. l’ll never be able to understand why there might be a moral question about rescuing somebody. Particularly at the risk of your own life. That’s just not a moral question in my mind.”


Outside/In was produced this week by:

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

Special thanks to Frank Mauceri, Ben Ayers, Ann Shannon, and Megan Trupp for their help making this story come together. Thanks also to Robert Kay and Courtney Cristman for sharing their stories with us. A post-script: Robert has adopted two girls from Nepal. One of them is applying to med school this year. And Courtney is hoping to set up a physical therapy clinic in Haiti as soon as she can.

Music from this week’s episode was composed by Cordelia Zars.

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 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.