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 34: The Company Man

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

 Mackie Branham Jr. | Photo: Benny Becker/Ohio Valley ReSource

Mackie Branham Jr. | Photo: Benny Becker/Ohio Valley ReSource

For more information on the plight of Mackie Branham Jr. and other coal miners like him, and the resurgence of black lung, we encourage you to read/listen to the reporting done by Benny for Ohio Valley ReSource back in December of last year: "Fighting for Breath: Black Lung's Deadliest Form Increases"

After the story first aired, Benny and the Ohio Valley ReSource received many requests asking how they could help the Branhams. This is a follow-up to the story: "How to Help Those 'Fighting for Breath'"

These stories resulted from an investigation by NPR's Howard Berkes which uncovered an alarming trend of progressive massive fibrosis in Appalachia. Howard's original story can be found here: "Advanced Black Lung Cases Surge in Appalachia"

We also recommend watching Harlan County USA, the Academy Award-winning documentary from Barbara Kopple which follows a grueling coal miners' strike in Kentucky in the mid 70s. 


In 2008, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) produced this film, Faces of Black Lung which shares the stories of two miners suffering from black lung disease.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

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

Thanks to NPR and to Howard Berkes for sharing some of Howard’s audio from his reporting. Also, thanks to Jeff Young of the Ohio Valley Resource and to WMMT, Appalshop’s community radio station.

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: 1-603-223-2448. Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Music this week from Mon Plaisir. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from this artist.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

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

Bonus Episode: 3 1/2 Feet Under

Listen. If you want jokes and nuance, listen to Episode 30: The Death Machine. That’s where we do that sort of thing. This is a bare bones explainer (only pun, I swear) and resource list for readers who are interested in learning more about green burial and funeral practices.

What is Green Burial?

Green, or natural burial, is when a body is buried without the use of chemical embalming, big heavy hardwood or metal caskets, and burial vaults. People choose green burial for environmental, religious, and personal reasons. Public viewings and memorial services are still possible, even without embalming. On the whole, green burials are significantly cheaper than conventional burials. When paired with home funerals, another growing DIY movement, green burial can be even cheaper than cremation.

Green Cemeteries

Many conventional cemeteries require a burial vault - and therefore do not accommodate true green burials. However, there are two types of cemeteries that do allow green burial - conservation burial grounds, and “hybrid” cemeteries. Conservation burial grounds, like Ramsey Creek Preserve, are burial grounds that are used to further environmental conservation. These grounds look more like parks or nature trails than cemeteries, and often have strict requirements about things like headstones, flower plantings, and burial density. “Hybrid” cemeteries are conventional cemeteries that have set aside plots exclusively for green burial. These cemeteries are less dedicated to environmental pursuits.

State by State

Different states have different laws about who is and is not allowed to handle various aspects of the funeral process. Some states require funeral directors to be involved, others do not. In order to prepare for your own death, or the death of a loved one, you’ll need to do some research to see what options are and aren’t available.

Cremation Options

If you choose to go the cremation route, here are some interesting things you can do with your ashes, but keep in mind, not all of these services and products get the thumbs up from green burial advocates. So if you’re looking to keep your impact minimal, you might need to do some additional research.

Resource List:

  • Download your state’s “Advance Directive” form
  • Check your state’s funerary laws. Please note: this list was compiled a few years back, so double-check any information with local resources if you can find them.
  • A NH guide to doing a DIY home funeral.

Outside/In was produced this week by:

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

Again, special thanks to all the folks we’ve spoken to for these two green burial stories - and to Lee Webster.  

Our theme is by Breakmaster Cylinder.   

Additional music in this episode from Podington Bear and Blue Dot Sessions. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from these artists.

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

 

Episode 30: The Death Machine

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

This is one of those stories that sort of left us with just as many questions as it did answers, and if you’re in the same boat, send your funeral queries to outsidein@nhpr.org. We’ll see if we can’t track down an answer and get back to you.

Outside/In was produced this week by:

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

Special thanks to Kelsey Eriksson, who hosts a podcast called Deathcast - she passed along the idea of doing a green burial story to us, but if you want to hear more about the gross details of embalming and other aspects of the funeral industry - check it out.

Also, thanks to Lee Webster, who is on the board of the National Home Funeral Alliance, and came by to answer some of our weirdest death questions.

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: 1-603-223-2448. Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Music this week from Podington Bear and Blue Dot Sessions.Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from these artists.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

Episode 29: A House Built on Sand

A quick note: this episode previously appeared in our podcast feed back in the spring of 2016, as an individual segment in one of our hour-long episodes we produced to air on New Hampshire Public Radio. So you might have already heard it, but…you might not have! 

Coastal communities of every partisan stripe are wrestling with the reality of rising seas. But when you’ve built a life centered around your dream home by the shore, the decision to pull up stakes and leave is a wrenching one. 

This story was a collaboration with WBEZ and their project, Heat of the Moment: Everyday Life on a Changing Planet. You can see more photos from Nahant here.

Nahant, Massachusetts is a rocky crescent moon-shaped piece of land that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean just north of Boston.

 

For its entire history, it’s been at the mercy of the ocean.  

To get to the town, back in the 1800s, you would cross a long beautiful beach at low tide that connected Nahant to the mainland. At high-tide, you had to take a boat. These days there’s a four-lane road built on that beach, and it sits just a few feet above high tide.

 Lincoln Wharf, upper end, Steamers for Bass Point and Nahant, corner of Commercial Street and Battery Street | 1899

Lincoln Wharf, upper end, Steamers for Bass Point and Nahant, corner of Commercial Street and Battery Street | 1899

“When the weather’s good in the summer, there’s no prettier, nicer place. We have a private beach, we have a great view. The shipping lanes of Boston come right in front of our house, so all the big ships that come in we can see. And I love it, I love my house,” said Dave Lazzaro, a retired bartender and a wood worker, as he sat in his living room on a windy  spring day.

When the weather’s good in the summer, there’s no prettier, nicer place.
— Dave Lazzaro

The house he shares with his wife Chris is filled with his carvings -- it’s kind of a comforting nautical clutter. They have lived on Willow Road, in a house that at high tide is a stone’s throw from the water, for nearly 50 years.

“I raised a family here,” he said, matter-of-factly.

The Dangers of Waterfront Living

Waterfront property tends to be expensive. More than 120 million people live in coastal counties in the United States -- that’s more than a third of the country.

But most people living by the water know -- you get the beautiful summer days, but also the brutal storms. There are two storms that people who have lived in Nahant for a long time talk about: the Blizzard of 1978, and what everyone here calls the “No-Name Storm” in 1991. If you live anywhere else, you’ve probably heard that second one called the Perfect Storm… they made a movie about it.

“When a storm comes in, the house shakes. You can literally feel it. And when those big waves hit the seawall, you can see movement, see curtains moving,” Dave Lazzaro said. “In the blizzard of ‘78 I had put plywood up over the windows, but when that got knocked in, there was waves carrying four-by-eight sheets of plywood through the living room, and if one of those had hit, we would have had broken bones or been underwater.”

The unfortunate thing is what we’re really facing in so many of these coastal areas is what we can rightly call an extinction threat.
— Sam Merril

As the seas rise, climate scientists predict devastation will become more and more common. Higher seas mean even a less powerful storm could push the tides up over Nahant’s seawalls. Around the country, as many as 12 million people could be at risk because of sea level rise.

“The unfortunate thing is what we’re really facing in so many of these coastal areas is what we can rightly call an extinction threat,” said Sam Merril, an engineer with GEI consultants, an engineering firm that designs coastal infrastructure. “The extinction of a community. We don’t know how to deal with extinction. It’s not really a conversation in our public sphere.”

In the face of such potential change, Merrill says there are three options for action:  “fortify, accommodate, and relocate.”

Fortify, accommodate, relocate. In other words, you can brace for things getting worse, you can try to adapt to live with the occasional flood, or you abandon your home and flee.

If this sounds like a simple choice, spend some time in a place like Nahant, where people are facing these choices. When you do, it’s gets clearer that each of those options is a lot more complicated.

 Photo: Sam Evans-Brown

Photo: Sam Evans-Brown

Fortifying Your Property

Let’s start with fortify-- choosing to stay and fight. In Nahant you can see this just a few doors down from Dave Lazzaro, in Ken Carangelo’s house.

He’s single, no kids, and is an executive at a big company in the film industry. He and his neighbors each own a section of an interlocking seawall. Carangelo’s house was built in the ‘90s after the Perfect Storm undermined the old wall. It’s pretty imposing: tall enough that you can’t reach to the top of it from the beach, and even more concrete is buried under the sand.

“And everything that’s down there has a solid footing and kevlar-coated rebar, so the salt doesn’t get to it as much,” Carangelo explained.

He bought this house in 2008, but says the seawall cost the previous owners more than $200,000. “It’s the equivalent of building a sandcastle,” he said, “and you kind of know what happens after a while. The ocean will do what the ocean’s gonna do. So depends how hard you wanna fight it I guess.”

I don’t think it’s feasible to protect every community.
— Sam Merril

Plenty of people in coastal communities believe the federal government should help pay to protect these sandcastles, and that’s true in Nahant too; one local official told me he thinks the Army Corps of Engineers should put a breakwater in Nahant Harbor.

But Sam Merrill, the coastal engineer, says the cost of protection -- especially if you’re trying to protect every building, from every storm, in every community in the country -- could run into the billions every year for a century.

“I don’t think it’s feasible to protect every community,” he said.

Accommodating the Storm Waters

So how about accommodating?  That second option on our list means trying to live with flooding and find ways to let the water flow in and out without causing too much damage.

In Nahant, they’re trying that too.

Enzo Barile, a local elected official, gave me a tour, pointing out newer houses that have been built to withstand moderate flooding. “Seawalls can only do so much. You’re not going to stop the Atlantic Ocean,” he said.

Barile grew up in Nahant. He owns a garage in town and can point out where all the families of mobsters used to live. He says the biggest accommodation Nahant has made is keeping a lot of its low-lying areas out of development. There’s  a baseball field, a golf course, and a small bird sanctuary all built into some of the lowest areas of the town.

 Photo: Sam Evans-Brown

Photo: Sam Evans-Brown

 After centuries of habitation, Nahant has built seawalls to protect some of the most flood prone locations. But despite its efforts, it is one of the most at-risk towns in the state. | Photo: Sam Evans-Brown

After centuries of habitation, Nahant has built seawalls to protect some of the most flood prone locations. But despite its efforts, it is one of the most at-risk towns in the state. | Photo: Sam Evans-Brown

Seawalls can only do so much. You’re not going to stop the Atlantic Ocean.
— Enzo Barile

And there’s even a pond at the low-point of the town’s golf course, and when storms come they put giant bilge pumps in to drain the town, and make room for the water that’s on its way.

“So we actually drain the town down, before we know there’s a major event gonna come, north’easter… we drain it right down,” said Barile.

But despite the seawalls, and the open space, Nahant has some of the worst flooding in Massachusetts. There are only two towns in the state that have received more per capita in federal flood insurance claims.

What’s more, nearly 50 homes in Nahant are places called “repetitive loss properties.” These are buildings that have had more than two major flood insurance claims in the past 10 years -- kind of the definition of having your home in a risky spot. These homes make up something like one percent of all the buildings covered by the flood insurance administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), but that one percent accounts for nearly 40 percent of the claims.

Even Enzo Barile -- a lifelong Nahanter -- thinks there’s a point after which you shouldn’t get paid to rebuild a home in a spot like this.

“Where do we draw the line? I don’t know,” Barile began. “Personally I think that once FEMA has paid you, if they’ve paid for your home and you’ve lost it, because it’s in a ridiculous spot... enough’s enough. We have just to say no, because the country is paying for that now.”

Moving Away From the Water

This brings us to relocation -- just move.  That third option on our list -- maybe more than the others -- seems so simple as a hypothetical. But in real life, it’s not even close.

Consider Dave Lazzaro, the retired bartender who likes watching the ships go by. His home on Willow Road has been flooded six times over the past 40-some years. He doesn’t question that the seas are rising.

“Storms are getting more intense and there are places where once you can live, that now you can’t live. I don’t think of Willow Road that way,” he said.

And that’s the thing; Nobody thinks this way about their own home. Even if logically they know the odds… which Dave does.

“Is this house going to be safe in the next 25 years?” he said. “I don’t know about that, because those storms that come in, if you’re in the path, you’re in trouble.”

When you’re talking about other people’s houses by the sea, and how risky those are, it’s much easier to distance yourself and look at the facts. When it’s your home, the view gets blurrier.

 Dave and Chris Lazzaro have lived in their home on the water for decades. Over the past 50 years the home has sustained flood damage a half dozen times. Twice - in 1978 and 1991 - that damage was serious. | Photo: Sam Evans-Brown

Dave and Chris Lazzaro have lived in their home on the water for decades. Over the past 50 years the home has sustained flood damage a half dozen times. Twice - in 1978 and 1991 - that damage was serious. | Photo: Sam Evans-Brown

Storms are getting more intense and there are places where once you can live, that now you can’t live.
— Dave Lazzaro

This is where flood insurance comes in. The price that people pay should be an indicator -- a clue -- that sooner rather than later, you will be in trouble.

I asked Dave and Chris if they would be willing to take the risk of living in their home without flood insurance. Dave answered immediately “No.” After a short pause, Chris said: “Yes.”

Even in one household, figuring out where and when to draw the line is complicated, and the signal of risk that flood insurance sends gets all mixed up in your love for your home.

And that risk signal gets more muddled when federal flood insurance subsidies don’t reflect the true risk of living in the sorts of flood zones.  

 Photo: Sam Evans-Brown

Photo: Sam Evans-Brown

For example, many older, riskier properties covered by federal flood insurance are grandfathered into artificially low rates. For example, after Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy left the federal flood insurance program $23 billion dollars in debt and Congress tried to raise those rates, coastal property owners reacted immediately, filling their representatives’ inboxes and voicemails with complaints

Members of Congress like then-Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, fought in 2013 to keep the subsidies.

“This is a major bill that passed without the data necessary to use either compassion or common sense,” she railed in a committee hearing at the time.

Less than two years after the change was passed, Congress watered it down: delaying some rate increases, and eliminating others.

This means, while insurance rates are rising for coastal residents, it could take another ten to fifteen years before many of them are paying what the private industry would consider a rate that truly reflects their risk.

None of the options are terribly good at this point. I mean, in many places there are still whole communities where in fact we may be past the point where anything makes financial sense.
— Sam Merril

So there is no clear message telling coastal homeowners whether they should relocate, at least not through the rates.

Sam Merrill, the coastal engineer with GEI consulting, thinks that without some sort of action, eventually many homeowners will be left holding the bag when their homes simply cease to be worth anything... or their homes are swept away.

“Generally it’s going to be bloody. The question is… can we help communities make it a little bit less bloody… and I… I think so,” he said. “None of the options are terribly good at this point. I mean, in many places there are still whole communities where in fact we may be past the point where anything makes financial sense.”

We often look for the easy -- least painful -- answers.
But when it comes to sea level rise in communities that could be facing extinction, there may not be a solution that makes it so no one gets hurt.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

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

We produced this episode in collaboration with the Heat of the Moment, which is a project of WBEZ in Chicago.

Flood insurance is a complicated topic, so special thanks this week to Dave Conrad, Steve Ellis, Howard Kunreuther and Carolyn Kousky who cumulatively spent hours explaining all of the nooks and crannies of the issue to me.

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: 1-603-223-2448. Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

Episode 25: The 2nd Greatest Show on Earth

A quick note: this episode previously appeared in our podcast feed back in the spring of 2016, as an individual segment in one of our hour-long episodes we produced to air on New Hampshire Public Radio. So you might have already heard it, but…you might not have! And because there have been recent reports about a proposed new hotel for the summit, we thought it all the more relevant. 

Mount Washington is famously home of "The World's Worst Weather", but it also hosts a huge amount of tourist infrastructure. Senior producer Taylor Quimby brings us this tale of how the mountain was conquered, and how that process became the template for mountain tourism nation-wide. 

Voices From Mount Washington

As part of our research for this story, we went to the New Hampshire Historical Society in Concord to check out the Summit House Guest Register from 1854 - an incredible document where early tourists would sign their names and often leave short poems or comments about their stay on Mt. Washington.  What’s really fascinating is the diversity of reactions and writing styles contained in the guest register - everything from dreary verse about bad weather, to religious expressions of praise for the mountain, and the view. We mocked up some playful recordings of the more colorful entries.

Early Slam Poet?

  THis PHOTO is OF THE 1854 MT. WASHINGTON SUMMIT HOUSE GUEST REGISTRY, WHICH IS HOUSED AT THE NEW HAMPSHIRE HISTORICAL SOCIETY IN CONCORD, NH.

THis PHOTO is OF THE 1854 MT. WASHINGTON SUMMIT HOUSE GUEST REGISTRY, WHICH IS HOUSED AT THE NEW HAMPSHIRE HISTORICAL SOCIETY IN CONCORD, NH.

Here’s an excerpt from one by Mary Huntington, who visited the summit on July 17th, 1854.  We think it sounds a little bit like a slam poem:

Sulky & Glum

THIS PHOTO IS OF THE 1854 MT. WASHINGTON SUMMIT HOUSE GUEST REGISTRY, WHICH IS HOUSED AT THE NEW HAMPSHIRE HISTORICAL SOCIETY IN CONCORD, NH.

Here is another from August 20th of the same year. We’re not sure about the author on this one, but it sounds a little bit like an Edgar Allen Poe poem, or maybe a drinking song:

Near Death Account

 Image from page 50 of "The White Mountains of New Hampshire : in the heart of the nation's playground" (1917)

Image from page 50 of "The White Mountains of New Hampshire : in the heart of the nation's playground" (1917)

On August 15th, 1854, a man from Philadelphia named W.N. Conckle penned a frightening account of his near-death experience on the summit, as he climbed through a terrific August storm.  Here’s just a bit:

Two Opposing Views

  Tip Top House, Mount Washington, N. H. |   White, Franklin, 1813-1870 -- Photographer

Tip Top House, Mount Washington, N. H. |  White, Franklin, 1813-1870 -- Photographer

And finally, excerpts from two entries that appear back to back in the register - one a glowing appraisal of them mountain’s breathtaking scale, and another somewhat less enthusiastic review:


Outside/In was produced this week by: 

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

Special thanks to Cornelius Allsopp, a former project manager for Harvey Construction - he headed the construction of the awesome Sherman Adams Visitor Center, and knows personally how hard it is to build on Mt. Washington.

Also thanks to Jeff Leich, Executive Director of the New England Ski Museum, and Rick Russack, founder and president of WhiteMountainHistory.org.

And thanks also to the New Hampshire Historical Society, which houses the 1854 Summit House Guest Register.

Thanks to our historical re-enactors for this story, Kevin Flynn, Starskee Suavé, Sean Hurley, Maureen McMurray, and Taylor Quimby, as the voice of obnoxious circus man!

This week’s episode featured tracks from Podington Bear. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks.

Theme music by Breakmaster Cylinder

 

Episode 22: Always Wear Earth Tones

Tony Bosco hid in plain sight for more than two decades in the most densely populated state in the nation. How did he do it? And what makes someone exchange all of the comforts of their home for the simplicity of a shed in the woods? 

Back toward the end of the summer, I teamed up with a local New Hampshire filmmaker, named Nick Czerula, who was headed down to New Jersey to do a profile of a guy named Tony Bosco.

Tony Bosco hid in plain sight for more than two decades in the most densely populated state in the nation. Exchanging the comforts of his home for the simplicity of a camp in the woods. I heard Tony's story over dinner over three years ago. A story of a woodsman chasing herds deer, on foot, as if he was living hundreds of years ago. I was told he had an intimate knowledge of the woods and area he lived. The punch line or what grabbed me was how moments before the hunt would begin, he would just appear before sunrise, out of the woods, ready. Turned out it was because these were his woods, his camp, his home. After three years of searching I found Tony, this video is his story and why he chose the path less traveled. Film by Nick Czerula | First AC - Ryan Mcbride | Boom operator - Sam Evans Brown | Music: Icelanders - Shimmer | Dustin Lau - We'll Leave Our Names Behind | Dustin Lau - A Love Language | Shot on Canon cameras. C300ii S120 powershot

Tony had lived in the woods in central New Jersey for more than twenty years, building secret shelters on private property, and camping just out of view of society.

Tony grew up in Piscataway, New Jersey. And he grew up in a pretty standard New Jersey way. He played football on the state champion team, chased girls, raised hell and got kind of lousy grades. But he also fished and camped and read books, like My Side of the Mountain.

He graduated high school, worked odd-jobs for a number of years and eventually moved to Florida where he drove a limo and worked for AT&T. But after around a decade in the rat-race Tony got fed up.

“You gotta work all the time,” he told us, “Too much work and no play.”

So, Tony moved back home, and just decided to walk away from it all. He walked into the woods. He had many different shelters, scattered about in a lot of spaces on the margins of towns in Middlesex and Somerset counties in New Jersey, but the patch of forest that Tony spent most of his years camping in was a piece of land owned by Rutgers University called Kilmer Woods.

Kilmer woods is about 370 acres. To put that in perspective, if you set up camp in the deepest part of this forest, you’re never more than a quarter mile from a paved road. Tony’s shelter was maybe a couple hundred yards from the nearest apartment building, and just a few hundred feet from the nearest trail.  

Maybe you read about the hermit who lived in the woods of central Maine for 27 years, stealing food and supplies from second homes and summer camps that whole time, until he was finally caught. That was a crazy story, but it was also Maine, where there are huge tracts of forest that you can hide out in. This is a tiny island of second growth forest in the middle of a sprawling suburban center.

So, how does someone live un-noticed, on university property for years? Here’s how Tony said he pulled it off.

Seclusion

“Don’t put down foot-paths, don’t disturb the foliage, you got to be able to blend, and always wear earth tones,” Tony explains, “Not black, black stands out like white in the woods, you got to wear the earth tones, the browns, the greys, greens.”

 Photo courtesy of Nick Czerula - nickcz.com

Photo courtesy of Nick Czerula - nickcz.com

Tony’s shelter was tall enough so you can sit up in it, but not stand. That made itharder to spot through the scrub. It had screens to keep the bugs out, windows and doors. It was made of leftover construction materials, and painted to blend in. There were branches and pine-boughs strewn all around it, and it was covered with branches from plastic Christmas trees. The brush in Kilmer woods is thick, and Tony would strategically weave saplings together, arrange dead fallen branches, even haul in old christmas trees that people threw out each year. He would thicken the woods up in certain places to subtly redirect anyone who had decided to leave the trail.

Nick Czerula, who grew up nearby, used to ride his bike through Kilmer woods when he was a kid. “Honestly, my mind is blown because we weren’t only riding there, we were digging there. We were building stuff maybe we shouldn’t like jump trails and stuff. And we never ran into anybody,” he says.

He says when he and Tony met the first time, they had lunch “and I said to him I thought I had almost found him once because I found a deer path or a tunnel, and he laughed, and he said ‘well where’d you end up’ and I said ‘nowhere’ and he said ‘exactly because that’s where I wanted you to end up.’”

Tony calls seclusion A number 1” in terms of the most important priority for someone who is sleeping outdoors on property they don’t have permission to use “so you don’t have to count on people being honest.”

Keep Clean

Photo courtesy of Nick Czerula - nickcz.com

Tony’s camp was right near a little brook, which he would wash off in year round.

“I would wash every single night, icicles come off my hair, I didn’t care,” he says, “You’ve gotta sleep clean, you’ve gotta stay clean.

This has the obvious benefit of helping him to stay kempt, which helped him to hold jobs, but in speaking to healthcare professionals who work with populations of homeless people, it also helps ward off the dermatological infestations -- scabies, lice, crabs -- that plague people who sleep outside night after night without changing their clothes.

The mantra of keeping clean hold true for your feet as well. Often-times people who are living outdoors will come into a clinic with cases of trenchfoot.

“Rotating your shoes is important, because you want to use them, let them air out, use another pair, let them air out, use another pair… I myself have never had foot issues,” Tony says.

Keep Warm

Tony slept on futon mattresses. (“You get the nice six-inch ones because the nine-inch ones are hard to carry out into the woods.”) His shelters were just wide enough that they could accommodate the futons as long as they folded up on the edges, so when he slept he became “Tony the Hotdog.”

In the winter he found he had to up his calorie intake, because “If you don’t eat enough … 3 o’clock in the morning, your eyes pop open, and you’re freezing.” Tony kept his shelters stocked with provisions from grocery stores (which included many products from Little Debbie, judging by the detritus he showed us), and by hunting deer.

“In New Jersey, you’re allowed, per person, legally, like 100 deer!” he says.

Steer Clear of Trouble

But the truth is, when we get down to it, surviving the elements of a New Jersey winter is not incredibly hard. Even up here in Northern New England there are people who spend the whole winter outside. Generally, it’s not exposure that kills homeless people. It’s usually a combination of addiction and ignorance,” says Tony, “And there are people who just plain give up. They get to the point of desperation, and they just just plain give up!”

A recent study in Boston found the top cause of death among its homeless population was drug overdose. After that came cancer, mostly lung cancer and liver cancer. (Think smoking and drinking combined with then not going to the doctor for years.) Violence causes some deaths, and doctors say violence is a big cause of injury among their patients.

The kinds of deaths you might associate with survival situations: freezing to death, starvation, dehydration… didn’t even make the list.

So if we ask ourselves, how did Tony survive all of those years sleeping outside… sure his secrecy, his hygiene, his systems for keeping warm and employed, they were important. But most of all he survived because he avoided the worst parts of the human condition: he never grappled with mental illness. He steered clear of addiction.

Tony Lives Inside Now

Eventually, the Rutgers police department found his campsite, and confiscated his stuff, and left him a note that he could come collect it from them. When he did, they charged him with defiant trespassing.

He moved on, found some other camping spots that he would rotate between, but not too much later, about three years ago, he got into a car accident. He was driving his van when he says another car blew through an intersection, leaving him with eleven damaged vertebrae and unable to work. So he had to come inside. These days he’s living with a high school friend, named Joe.

Being in his late fifties, Tony already outlived most people who spend decades sleeping outside.

When you ask Tony what the future holds for him, it’s hard to know what to make of his answer. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with society. I’m kind of looking forward to growing up one day and joining. I’m getting older now, physically,” he says… but then you can see him check himself and reconsider, “I don’t feel like it’s time... but I’ll move back out to the woods, and be happy.”

 Photo by Ryan McBride for Nick Czerula courtesy of Nick Czerula - nickcz.com

Photo by Ryan McBride for Nick Czerula courtesy of Nick Czerula - nickcz.com


Outside/In was produced this week by:

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

Special thanks to Nick Czerula for hooking us up with Tony Bosco. Also we'd like to thank the numerous health care professionals we talked to for this story: Marianne Savarese, Jennifer Chisholm, and Paula Mann with Healthcare for the Homeless of Manchester, and Dave Munson and Travis Bagget with Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program.

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: 1-603-223-2448. Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

This week’s episode featured tracks from Blue Dot Sessions, Spinning Merkaba, and Broke for Free. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from these artists. 

Episode 18: Dr. Percy & the Magic Soybean

It’s not surprising that many of the medicines we use today are derived from plants. The surprising part is how similar the molecular components of plants are to the building blocks of our own human, mammalian bodies. This week we dive head first into a vat of soybean oil with Dr. Percy Julian who, against all odds, became one of the most prominent chemists of his time and whose work paved the way for the birth control pill. Plus, why the cone snail and its deadly neurotoxin just might be the key to a pain free future.


A Brief Explanation of Natural Products or Medicines Derived from Nature

The natural world is full of contradictions about what is safe and what is not. In many cases the brighter and more beautiful a creature or plant is, the more likely it is to kill you. (This is a bit of a tangent, but look up the mantis shrimp. Stunning. Deadly.)

Take for example, the cone snail, which has a remarkable shell, a real showstopper. A shell so remarkable that the shell from one species, Conus cedonelli - known as “the matchless cone” because of its unsurpassed beauty - sold at an auction in Holland for 5 times the amount a Vermeer painting at the same auction sold for.

Cone snails are meat-eating mollusks that catch fish, an astounding feat for such a small creature. They have trunk like snouts and inside that snout is a tiny harpoon, and as a fish swims by this pretty little cone snail, the harpoon shoots out and sticks the fish. But wait, there’s more.

Cone snails possess an amazing chemical, a neurotoxin, that has the ability to destroy the nervous system of their prey; in a matter of seconds they can completely immobilize a fish. And then, if that’s not terrifying enough, they swallow the fish whole, you know, for dramatic effect.

And while these creatures are often pegged as one of the deadliest creatures of the sea - the larger sized snail can actually kill a person, though they would have a harder time swallowing us whole - their powerful neurotoxin holds the key to a relatively new type of painkiller called a ziconotide.

Ziconotides are 1000 times more powerful than the most powerful opiates we typically hear about today: morphine, fentanyl, codeine. But more importantly, ziconotides don’t produce a tolerance in humans, so doctors don’t have to ramp up the dose to keep treating the pain. This drug is now successfully being used to treat patients with AIDS and cancer, people who are suffering from the very worst types of chronic unmanageable pain. And so the mighty cone snail goes from deadly fish killer to groundbreaking painkiller.

The connection between modern medicine and the natural world is fascinating and complex; from rare organisms that hold the key to life-saving drugs to common plants that can be used as the raw materials to manufacture medications some people take every single day. Chemists, like the late Percy Julian, are the scientists on the front lines of unlocking drugs that come from nature, which are known as Natural Products. (There's even a Journal of Natural Products and it's chock full of words like antimelanogenic and fibronectin expression.) 

To learn more about Dr. Percy Julian and his work as a chemist and natural products innovator, check out the NOVA documentary on his life and work.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

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

Special thanks to Joan Coyle and Keith Lindblom at the American Chemical Society, and to the Julian family for speaking with us as well as letting us use the incredible tape of Dr. Percy Julian himself. 

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: 1-603-223-2448. Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

This week’s episode featured tracks from Blue Dot Sessions, David Szesztay, Joseph C. Smith's Orchestra, Podington Bear, and Ty Gibbons. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from these artists.