Episode 40: 10x10 - Midden

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

Arthur Spiess | Photo: Logan Shannon

Arthur Spiess | Photo: Logan Shannon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Middens, Not 'Mittens'

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

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

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

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

But who were the people pitching the oyster shells? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shells Can Tell You a Lot

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

“Not a lot,” he concludes. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Did the Pile Stop Growing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Alternate Theories

Deb Wilson | Photo: Logan Shannon

Deb Wilson | Photo: Logan Shannon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We're in the Fog of Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outside/In was produced this week by:

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

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

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

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

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.

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

Episode 37: Ask Sam Round-up

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

Question 1: Matt in Australia asks

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

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

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

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

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

Question 2: Sally from Dover, New Hampshire asks 

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

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

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

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

Question 3: Tim asks

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

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

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

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

Question 4: Bennett from Belfast, Maine asks

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

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

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

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

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

Outside/In was produced this week by:

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

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

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

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

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

S01|E04: Living Fossils

Technology advances at breakneck speed, so why hasn’t the electric grid changed in 60 years? This week’s episode explores  things, that for one reason or another, haven’t changed in a very, very long time. Like the ginkgo tree, which has remained strong--and smelly--for over 250 million years.

Listen to the full episode: 

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Something very different is going on up in Boothbay, Maine. It was an experiment which – if it works – could represent a fundamental shift in the way we think about using electricity.

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Ginkgo Stink

Ginkgo Biloba is a beautiful tree with an incredible history that dates back millions of years – it’s also a popular street tree among urban foresters. So why are some cities clamoring to have all their ginkgoes cut down, while others are planting them in the thousands? The answer has to do with your dirty gym socks, 19th century London smog, and maybe, the curious appetites of long-dead dinosaurs.


A video tour of Bob Shanahan's creations

Pre-historic Megafauna

Since 2003, Bob Shanahan has been painstakingly recreating the megafauna that used to roam the Northeast, to scale. He uses wood and wire frames to create the bodies of the animal, then he collects local plants and other natural items to give them fur, claws, and teeth.

Outside/In was produced this week by: 

Sam Evans-Brown, Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Logan Shannon & Molly Donahue

Theme music by Breakmaster Cylinder

Photos of Sam are by Greta Rybus unless otherwise noted.

S01|E02: On the Hunt

Ever since becoming a reporter, Sam has heard stories about a secret hunting reserve in New Hampshire, stocked with elk and 200-pound wild boar.  It's the size of a medium-sized town, but most people have never even heard about it, and almost nobody wants to talk about it.

This episode is all about being on the hunt. We've got the secret history behind what one NH lawmaker calls: "the most exclusive game preserve in the United States." Also, an in-depth conversation with a moose-hunting guide, and a look at a terrifying/adorable songbird: the Northern Shrike.

Listen to the full episode:

The USDA traps and kills any wild boar they can find that have escaped.

The Wild Boar of Corbin's Park

To start the show, Sam is going to take us all hunting. Not hunting for animals, but instead, hunting for the secret of what’s behind that 26-mile fence cutting through the woods of New Hampshire, and why some people want it to stay a secret.

We've got photos of Corbin's Park--er...rather its fences--below. 

Question 1: Lobster Traps

Senior Producer Taylor Quimby asks Sam how lobster traps work, and the answer may surprise you. 

Photo Credit: Megan Tan

The Moose Whisperer

Every year, about 2,700 of the roughly 50,000 people who apply, receive a moose permit in Maine. If you're one of the lucky ones who has waited 20 years for this moment, you’re going to want an expert on your team. You’re going to want a moose whisperer.  


Question 2: Deer Hunting Protests

In January, Sam reported on a deer hunt in Massachusetts for NHPR news. The hunt took place in the Blue Hills of Massachusetts, and while there were some groups protesting the hunt, some were absent. Executive Producer Maureen McMurray asks Sam why major conservation groups weren't at this particular hunt.  


Cute Predators: The Tiny Terror

When you think of predators, you probably think of lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!). Massive mammals with claws and teeth made for killing. But some predators are adorable little fluffs of feathers and are just as lethal. Eric Masterson works by day as a Land Specialist for the Harris Center for Conservation Education in Hancock, New Hampshire, where he runs the stewardship program for the organization’s approximately 10,000 acres of conservation easements, assists with new conservation projects, and coordinates their field trip program. 


Question 3: Human Bait?

Catching prey often involves baiting. Producer Logan Shannon poses this question: if humans weren't at the top of the food chain, and there were a predator hunting us, what would they use as bait?

Corbin's Park Photos

Sam visited the periphery of Corbin's Park on numerous occasions and even flew over it. Here are photos from his adventures along with a few historical photos from Brian Meyette's website.


Outside/In was produced this week by: 

Sam Evans-Brown, Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Logan Shannon, Molly Donahue, and Megan Tan.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder. Songified questions were composed by Uncanny Valleys. 

Photos of Sam are by Greta Rybus unless otherwise noted.

Special Thanks to:

David Allaben and Tony Musante from the USDA. Ken Hoff who gave us an airplane ride. Win Watson of UNH who helped Sam answer the lobster trap question by sharing his lobster research.

Episode 10: Gridlocked

Something very different is going on up in Boothbay, Maine. It was an experiment which – if it works – could represent a fundamental shift in the way we think about using electricity.

Listen to the full show

I finally went to visit the rocky peninsula the Maine coast in August of 2015. I had been following what was going on there intermittently by reading the dispatches from the Portland Press herald’s excellent energy reporter (who has an equally excellent byline) Tux Turkel, and occasionally wading into the arcana of the filings at the Maine Public Utilities Commission. But after so much reading, I wanted to hear about it first-hand.

If you want to hear the details of the Boothbay project and explanation for why it matters and how it works, you should scroll back up and listen to this week’s podcast. But here’s the tantalizing question that drew me up to Maine: what if everything you thought you knew about energy was exactly backwards?

What if the way that we currently do electricity is actually the most expensive option, and all of that fancy “clean-tech” and “green-tech” actually the cheapest option?

Certainly, if all you’ve ever done is looked at a chart of the cost per megawatt hour of a given source of energy, this is a surprise.

This counter-intuitive possibility is not news to folks who have been paying attention. The Rocky Mountain Institute has been churning out reports saying so for years. For instance, a recent one concludes that technology available today “can unlock $13 billion per year of avoided grid investment and 10 to 40% savings on customer bills.” Another predicts that within 10 or 15 years it will be cheaper to build a new house with solar panels and a battery than to connect that house to the electric grid.

But the challenges of rolling out technologies like these are pretty profound. In part of our interview that didn’t make it into the podcast, Richard Silkman, whose company was responsible for the Boothbay experiment, explained to me that he initially had hoped to create a business that would compete with the utilities whenever an upgrade to the grid was deemed necessary. Here's how it would work, the utilities could propose a new power line and wherever the technology was the right fit,his company would propose a competing suite of renewable energy, energy storage, and other technologies that could shift demand away from hours of peak stress on the grid.

“But as we got more involved in the process and began to learn more about how the system would treat us, we realized that was not going to be an option,” he said.

The essential struggle is that the utility industry is not governed by the same market forces that made massive technological change in areas like computers and other gadgets possible. Utilities have operated for years as regulated monopolies. Only in a few states has something that vaguely resembles a free-market for electricity emerged. In order to make money selling electricity or building power lines, your company must work through a complicated web of regulators, electric rate designs, and separate regional markets for energy, generation capacity, voltage regulation… and so on.

Indeed, even as we were putting the final touches on the podcast, a new chapter in the saga had begun. In a filing, the local utility argued that electric demand in Boothbay has been growing more slowly than originally forecast and therefore the pilot project was unnecessary and should be discontinued. It also says that of 13 times they called on the batteries or backup generator, only 6 times did they feed energy back into the grid without any problems.

Silkman’s company (in a surprisingly colorful rebuttal, as regulatory filings go) contends the utility “got it wrong,” and that it was in fact the presence of the project which has resulted in declining electricity demand. It also claims that the utility has withheld crucial data it needs to make the pilot work most efficiently, and the only data that has been provided was in a “in an apparently hostile attempt… to discredit the usefulness and value” of the pilot project.

I asked Steve Hinchman, one of Silkman's collaborators, about his company’s relationship with the utility when I interviewed him. “This project is challenging them,” he replied, saying that the folks on the technical side of the business have been helpful and interested in the project but “the people that are more responsible for the financial long term planning would prefer not to have competition, to be honest.”

In short, if the transition renewable energy and the smart grid is going happen, it’s going to require a whole-sale change in the business model of electricity, and that could be an ugly fight between the companies that deliver us electricity now, and those that may do so in the future.

This is happening in some places, though different states are following different tracks. In New York, the emerging plan is largely market-based, meanwhile in Vermont regulators have taken the lead. Whichever path is followed, the result could be similar: as Gordon Van Welie, CEO of ISO New England, once told me in an interview “theoretically perfect regulations and perfect markets would yield the same result.”

Will that result be something like the Boothbay pilot, or something else entirely? We’ll just have to wait and see.


Photos of the 2003 Blackout and Boothbay

Episode 6: Champagne on the Rocks

We reported this story back in 2015. There have been a couple of changes which we mention in the version you see below: Episode 39: Champagne on the Rocks. Both versions of this episode are included in this post for the sake of keeping our archival ducks in a row. Enjoy!



In the summer of 2015, Scott Jurek set a new record for running the 2,181 miles of the Appalachian Trail. But on his triumphant day atop the last mountain in Northern Maine, his 21st century campaign for the trail's record ran afoul of a park founded on ideas about wilderness from a decidedly earlier time.

Scott Jurek Celebrating at the Top: 

A photo posted by Scott Jurek (@scottjurek) on

A photo posted by Scott Jurek (@scottjurek) on

A photo posted by Scott Jurek (@scottjurek) on

A photo posted by Scott Jurek (@scottjurek) on

Episode 3: Moose Whisperer

...or Why Moose Hunting is Like Watching a Soap Opera.

In 2015 about 2,700 of the 50,000 people who applied will receive a moose permit in Maine and if you’re one of the lucky ones who has waited 20 years for this moment, you’re going to want an expert on your team. You’re going to want a moose whisperer.  

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