Episode 48: Pick Your Poison

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

Photo © 2012  J. Ronald Lee

Photo © 2012 J. Ronald Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scratching a Primal Itch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Invasion of the Death Cap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donna’s Path

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Backlash from the Mycophiliacs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But She Can’t Put Down the Basket

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outside/In was produced this week by:

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

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

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

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.

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

Episode 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.


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.”


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 38: Daisy Supply Chain

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

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

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

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

Credit: Logan Shannon & Molly Donahue

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

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

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

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

From Domestic Product to International Import

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

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

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

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

The South American Flower Machine

Solitaire Roses from a farm in Ecuador

Solitaire Roses from a farm in Ecuador

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Regional Wholesale Market

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Internet to Your Doorstep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farm to Vase

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outside/In was produced this week by:

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

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

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.

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

Episode 35: Full Disclosure

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

Nature Documentaries: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

I’d love to say that I’ve never used TV as a parental crutch, but there are days when I’m trying to work from home, or am just plain exhausted, when I’ll do anything to keep my 5-year old son distracted for a solid hour. As a form of dubious justification for letting my flat screen babysit, I’ll put on something “educational”—which usually means choosing something from Netflix’s extensive collection of nature documentaries. The BBC series Life is a household favorite, or the new Planet Earth II. The basic philosophy is that learning about porcupines is more valuable than learning about Pokémon, that watching bats is better than watching Batman.

This behaviour has never been filmed before! Hatchling marine iguanas are attacked by snakes hunting on mass. This clip was taken from the Islands episode of Planet Earth II.

But then again, what’s so inherently valuable about the wildlife programs? Like all TV, the genre varies widely when it comes to quality. There’s the BBC stuff with the incredible “how-did-they-do-that?” shots, but there’s also the now infamous “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives”, a fake documentary that aired as part of Discovery Channel’s 2013 Shark Week.

“The question is not, is wildlife or nature programming educational,” says Cynthia Chris, author of Watching Wildlife.  “The question is, what is it teaching? Is it teaching us factual things that will help us care for and protect the environment? Or is it teaching things that will encourage us to fear and disdain and destroy the environment?”

I can hear you groaning from here. Why does everything involving the environment turn into a finger-wagging message about social responsibility? I hear you. I don’t want to take the fun and wonder out of nature documentaries. That’s what makes them so great! But there are some ways we can watch them a little more thoughtfully even if we’re watching a show about a giant fictional shark.

Teach Younger Kids to Get Savvy: Listen For the Sound of Deception

The best nature documentaries are able to get incredible close-up shots of animals - so close you might wonder, how the heck did producers capture that amazing sound? Sadly, the truth is that they probably didn’t. Wildlife filmmaker and author of Shooting in the Wild Chris Palmer will tell you that when you hear a bird flapping it’s wings, that’s likely sound engineer opening and closing an umbrella. (I suggest that you go try this one immediately.)

We're taking you behind the soundproof doors into the world of Earth Touch's audio experts as they practise the finicky art of Foley & sound design. See exactly what it takes to enhance or recreate nature's diverse sounds and bring a wildlife documentary to life.

A lion tearing into a freshly killed antelope? That’s a someone cracking some fresh celery in half.

Not everything is totally faked, but footage shot in slow motion or sped up through time-lapse photography doesn’t capture audio at all, which means that whatever you’re hearing was at least captured separately and added in post-production. Sometimes, sounds are even created that don’t exist in nature at all. Frank Scheuring is a sound mixer and editor, and president of Capital Post Production. He also worked on the first Planet Earth series. He says that if you see something, you expect to hear something too. “A jellyfish probably isn’t going to make a sound at all, but if there’s no sound there, it’s less believable. It’s really just enhancing reality, and trying to bring [the viewer] into the environment.”

Dave Birch, audio manager at Earth Touch explains the art of foley.

Once you accept the truth that most nature documentary sound effects aren’t authentic, it can be a pretty big mood-killer. Is NOTHING real? But once you get used to the idea, it can make for an interesting game: try guessing if the sound you’re hearing is fake or not fake. Underwater scene? Fake. Slow-motion? Fake. Teeny tiny bird? Probably fake.

If you really want to get into it with kids, collect some household items, turn the TV to mute, and try making your own sound effects!

Introduce the Idea That They Aren’t Getting the Whole Story

Even the most reputable nature documentaries often steer away from issues like climate change, or deforestation, implicitly depicting the wild places of the world as pristine or untouched by human influence. That’s part of what makes them so beautiful: there’s a dignity to the elegance of the natural world it that feels timeless.

But it’s also pretty misleading, and both filmmakers and environmental philosophers have argued it’s counter-productive.

“It’s important that films carry a conservation message, and part of that message should be that people are not separate from nature,” says Chris Palmer. Palmer specializes in IMAX films, and says that getting those pristine shots we love is getting increasingly harder to do. “It’s hard to get a shot without a boat in the background, without a car in the background, without smoke, you know - there’s signs of people everywhere.”

This behaviour has never been filmed before! Hatchling marine iguanas are attacked by snakes hunting on mass. This footage was filmed for the Islands episode of Planet Earth II.

One interesting way to enhance the educational opportunity of a nature documentary is to have a map or globe handy while you’re watching. Occasionally pause the film to look up places featured in the program. How big is this island of seemingly un-fragmented wilderness? How close is the nearest human settlement? How might your impression of the scene change if you knew there was a safari tour bus just off-screen? Look out for “behind-the-scenes” videos that help illustrate how programs were shot and produced. It’s strange to see camera people, but it gives you a better sense of how filmmakers use their craft to get the desired reaction from the viewer.

A behind the scenes look at the snake/iguana scene, which reveals that the filming was - for the most part - continuous, and that the behavior being filmed is very real… Even if the sound is not.

TV shows like Nat Geo’s “World’s Weirdest” or “72 Cutest Animals” are a fun way for kids to learn about animal behaviors, and tend to feature rare or bizarre creatures that can really capture the imagination. The pangolin, which looks like a cross between an anteater and an armadillo, is arguably worth its appearance on Nat Geo’s “World’s Weirdest” series, but the fact that the pangolin is the most trafficked animal in the world goes unmentioned. According to the African Wildlife Foundation, some 100,000 pangolin are slaughtered every year for their scales. Two species of pangolin are listed as critically endangered.

This begs an important question for parents: is it enough that these programs build wonder for the natural world or must they also put a spotlight on pangolin poaching? I tend to think a light touch on the bad news is the best approach. Research has shown that exposing children to calamities beyond their control when they’re too young may actually cause them to become fearful and even more disconnected from the natural world. But by remaining alert to what is left out of these documentaries, it can help you to connect the dots once your kid is ready.

As They Get Older, Teach Them About How Things Have Changed!

Some of the “classic” wildlife documentaries of the past are just as dramatic as anything you’ll see on the BBC, but not always in the ways you might expect. Jacque Costeau is remembered as a charismatic oceanographer, explorer, and co-inventor of the aqualung. He is also celebrated as an early conservationist who believed in protecting the quality and life of our oceans. Frankly though, his films are hilariously cheesy for modern audiences, filled with pulpy adventure narration and unnecessary shots of Cousteau’s bare-chested crew lazing about his vessel. Aside from the claymation fish, Wes Anderson’s film The Life Aquatic is actually a pretty good recreation.

And yet, watching someone known for being a pioneer conservationist, Cousteau reflected the values of his day. One scene from the Academy award winning documentary The Silent World is especially shocking: Cousteau’s ship strikes a young whale, injuring it badly. The crew decides to end the whale’s misery (their words) by shooting it in the head. The now deceased whale’s blood attracts a number of sharks, who start shredding it to bits. It’s already a gruesome scene, but escalates to new levels of horror when Cousteau’s crew start “avenging” the whale (even though they were the ones that killed it) by hooking sharks onto the boat and butchering them with axes. The scene lasts several minutes, and is narrated by Cousteau himself without a hint of irony.

(Now that I think about it,  this scene is pretty graphic, so it might be best to do this exercise once your kids are teenagers.)

The Silent World “Whale and Shark scene” 

As abhorrent as this scene is now, it tells you a lot about how much our understanding of the natural world has changed in the last century. This film was shot before the famous “Save the Whales” campaign, before the establishment of the EPA, even before the founding of the Humane Society of the United States. Even for an ardent conservationist like Cousteau, sharks were viewed as killers and so the world was considered to be better off without them.

When nature documentaries during this era weren’t killing animals on screen for entertainment, they were sometimes doing it behind the scenes as part of film production. Disney’s True Life Adventure series is one of the worst culprits, which you’ll discover in Bob McKeown’s excellent documentary on the subject for the CBC’s The Fifth Estate. For older kids and adults looking to pull the curtain back on early nature documentary production, this is a must watch.

This is Bob McKeown’s original documentary on animal cruelty in Hollywood for the 5th Estate, which includes his investigation into White Wilderness.

Final Thoughts: Are Nature Documentaries a Form of Journalism... or Entertainment?

Examining the natural world is, in part, the vocation of scientists and conservationists, and so there is a distinctly empirical flavor to nature documentaries. As opposed to non-fiction films that focus on contentious social or political issues, nature - it would seem - is simple, even in all of its evolutionary complexity. But nature documentaries, rooted in science as they may appear, are not bound by the same ethical considerations that science or journalism are.

I asked Chris Palmer, do wildlife filmmakers see themselves as journalists or entertainers?  “A bit of both,” he told me. “They have to be entertainers. If they don’t entertain their audience the ratings and box office numbers will be low, they won’t get rehired, and their career will be in tatters.” On the other hand, Palmer says, to call something a documentary is to claim that the work is accurate, truthful, and was responsibly produced. “The bottom line is that their are no rules; each filmmaker approaches this challenge in their own individual way.”

Elizabeth White, one of the producers for the new BBC series Planet Earth II, says that their filmmakers receive ethics training - something Palmer has openly advocated for. When I asked her how she sees herself, she said, “as a scientist and filmmaker who is trying to engage audiences through wildlife storytelling.”  

By teaching your kids what’s real and what’s not when they watch nature documentaries, you’ll be equipping them to see the world with a healthy dose of skepticism. And preparing them to enter a world that won’t cleanly delineate between facts and fiction for them.

Also… if you do this right, they shouldn’t believe the megalodons are still alive.

Here's a handy flow chart to help you watch documentaries with a careful eye. | credit: logan shannon

Outside/In was produced this week by:

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

A big thanks to Chris Palmer and Bob McKeown - more than thirty years on, Cruel Camera is still an amazing piece of journalism. A few years ago, they did an update on the show, and interviewed David Attenborough, and looked at how much has changed in wildlife filmmaking since the 80s.

Thanks also to Cynthia Chris. Her book Watching Wildlife traces more of the history of the wildlife genre, and digs into some really thorny philosophical questions about how we use animals as a proxy to reinforce cultural norms. We didn’t have time to get into it here, but it’s some heady stuff.

And special thanks to Elizabeth White and the BBC. She and the folks at Planet Earth have actually put out some behind-the-scenes footage of how they made the iguana snake scene, and some other amazing moments from the series. They’ve been really candid about their practices, so we’re not the only ones that are big on disclosure.

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

Music this week from 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.

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. 

Episode 5: Ginkgo Stink

In this episode:

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.

Listen to the episode

One thing all ginkgo tree videos have in common: really soothing music.


Episode 1: The Kiwi Apocalypse...

...Or, How Sam Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cold Hardy Kiwi.

Iago Hale has a vision: it’s one where the economy of the North Country is revitalized by local farmers selling delicious cold hardy kiwi berries to the masses.

Meanwhile, Tom Lautzenheiser has been battling a hardy kiwi infestation in Massachusetts for years, and is afraid that this fight will soon be coming to the rest of New England.

Should we worry about the cold hardy kiwi and what does the quest to bring it to market tell us about what an invasive species is?

Listen to the episode:

Check out photos of Sam's new favorite fruit: