Interviewer: Carrie N. Kline
Place of Interview: Concord Free Public Library
Transcriptionist: Carrie N. Kline
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Audio file is in .mp3 format.
Carrie N. Kline: Okay. Today's June 15th. It's 2009. And my name's Carrie Kline, here with Michael Kline. And we're doing interviews in the Concord Free Library. Would you introduce yourself?
Peter Alden: My name is Peter Alden, A-L-D-E-N. Born in Concord, graduate of Concord schools, and a returning resident. And I've been interested in birds and nature throughout my life, and am very interested in what's going on here in Concord and comparing it to the past and trying to extrapolate what it might be like in the future. So, I've been leading bird watching tours and general nature tours to over one hundred countries around the world, mainly birds, but also mammals. One day, in the early '90s, I had seen virtually every bird in the world, and I said, "Geez, I don't really know my flowers, my bugs, my mushrooms, and whatever right here in my old hometown of Concord" that I moved back to in the mid-1990s. And so, I got a knapsack, and I stuck fifteen different field guides into it: Peterson field guides and others, and walked around Walden Pond and said, "I'm going to identify every plant and every bug that I can see, and every tree, and so forth." And I found out that most of the things in most of the books did not even occur in New England, because they cover the whole U.S., or half of the U.S., Eastern Rockies or something.
So I did a book series for the National Audubon Society. They're called The National Audubon Society Regional Guide Series to New England, various other groups of states out to California. And then, a colleague of mine at Harvard University, E.O. Wilson, who's an ant guy, we got to be friends, and we decided to do a twist on the first citizen science effort that's meaningful that was done here in America, and it's been going on for a hundred years: a Christmas bird count. And I had organized the first Concord Christmas bird count back in 1960 for the National Audubon Society. And today, it's one of two thousand Christmas bird counts. People go out and count birds in the middle of winter to spot population changes and trends. But it was just birds, and it was just winter. And I sort of said, "Geez, I'm doing this book series for National Audubon, biodiversity guides to a thousand common species of plants and animals in different states and sections of states." And it just hit me once, how come we're just looking at birds and only doing it in the winter time? Why don't we get together bunches of people and try to identify all of the different, not just birds, but mammals, and reptiles, and fish, and all the different groups of insects, and spiders, and vernal pool creatures, trees, and the shrubs, and the vines, and the wildflowers, and the mushrooms and the mosses and the lichens?
So, Ed Wilson and I decided to put together the world's first Biodiversity Day in 1998, centered on our spiritual home, which is Walden Pond and the surrounding woods and surrounding
landscape that Thoreau walked in and canoed in, back in, say the 1840s and the 1850s
in particular. So we got together to see if we could get a gang of experts of all stripes of field biology to see if we could see a thousand species in a day here. And we did this on July 4, 1998, in honor of the day that Thoreau moved into his cabin at Walden. So we gathered a hundred or more top experts from the Northeast and went around and managed to see close to 2,000 species, visible things that we could see and identify in one day. And we would have cracked 2,000, but our spider guy got stuck in Cleveland in a plane malfunction. And we're re-doing that this coming July 4, 2009.
We'll be gathering another hundred experts to celebrate E.O. Wilson's 80th birthday. He's the naturalist, biologist at Harvard, specializing in ants, but a spokesman for biodiversity. And we're partly doing this to honor the great naturalist tradition here in Concord as exemplified by Thoreau. But he was not alone. There were some people before him making great notes on things, and many, many people after him. So we are gathering people together to honor this tradition here. And we have the longest record of any place in North America of the mammals, the birds, the flowers, and flowering times, returning times of the birds. And a recent study, organized by Dr. Richard Primack of Newton at the Boston University--. He's a professor of botany there that's been checking on the flowering times and the returning times of the song birds, particularly the neotropical migrants which are in Latin America. And Thoreau, a lonely man in many ways, I guess, kept careful records that nobody was paying him to do, and he probably didn't know the utility of his records. But in the 1840s and '50's, Henry went around and made notes when every flower came out. And some years were warmer, and some years were colder and whatever. But he was able to do averages over time.
He knew every wildflower in Concord. And he would go to meadows, and he would go to swamps and bogs and, "Nope, it's not out yet." And he would go there the next day, and "No, it's still not out". And the next day, "There it is in flower." And he'd make notes of that. And when the Baltimore orioles, and the scarlet tanagers, and the woodcocks, and the various birds came north and there was annual spring migrations, he made notes of them. So we have averages. No one else in America ever did that in the 1800s. So we have the oldest record here. And now that climate change is upon us, those notes are extremely valuable in proving man accelerated climate change. We know that climates have changed. Any Republican can tell you that there's warmer periods and colder periods. Yes, yes, yes, we know that, but not to the degree of greenhouse gasses emitted by our industrial complex, our airplanes, our cars, and feedlots of cattle, etc. And so now we have concrete note, from Thoreau's notes 150 years ago, and since students and other local naturalists here in Concord around, check when are the birds coming back and when are the flowers, and it's very interesting. And that's why we have this special need here in Concord to protect open space, because of this historical record that we'd like to keep open. So we've been checking on that.
Another interesting facet that has been uncovered by this search by all these botanists is that, of the 500 or so wildflowers that Thoreau was tracking, the flowering dates of, we're missing about 25% of those, completely gone. But it's interesting, we have books on the birds of Concord and the flora of Concord that come out periodically by various authors. When Thoreau was doing his botany, in the 1800s, we had, just to pick a number in wildflowers, roughly 500. A hundred and twenty years later, another book came out, The Flora of Concord. I think it was the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, or something like that. And all of the wildflowers of Thoreau were still here in Concord, in 1970. They were still here, minus a couple of orchids. In the year 2005-10, roughly today, in this re-doing of Thoreau's notes, suddenly about 25% of the wildflowers are completely gone in Concord. I mean, regardless of the flowering dates, we can't find them. So it has been interesting. What are the changes here, and why? Among the factors--. I mean everybody blames climate change for everything, but there's other factors involved. Of course, it's sprawl, re-virgining of our forests--.
PA: Meaning that, stepping back a step here, when the Pilgrims came over here, followed by the Europeans, later by some other continents, we clear-cut forests for farms here in New England west, west, west until this cultural grasslands of cattle, in a few cases sheep, and then there are fields of grain and orchards. And then we suddenly had this cultural landscape of open country meet the Great Plains. And a big flood of plains things came east, apparently, to fill into these grasslands that he had. So Thoreau's time was when 90% of the landscape south of the White Mountains here in New England was de-forested. It was grasslands, farms, and fields everywhere. Very few forests. The only forests that were tolerated south of the White Mountains were mainly wood lots for people that were owned in a checkerboard pattern, such as Emerson's woods around one corner of Walden, and other owners'. And then after the harvest season and before the snow fell, you got your oxen and your big horses and your axes (it was before we had power saws), and on a rotational basis in the worst agricultural land in most of our towns here in New England, the sandiest soil, people would go in and chop wood to cook food and chop wood to heat their homes for the rest of the year, until the following summer.
So the woods were not here for wilderness. The woods were here for utilitarian purposes, on the worst agricultural land, which is on the land around Walden in our case here, and you went it and chopped down trees. So your forests were your Persian Gulf of the time, in 1800s. You didn't have ships with natural gas, and you didn't have tankers full of oil coming from various countries that hate us, so to speak. You had to cook, and you heated yourself with wood from your forests. The forests were not there to protect the birds, or as a home for anything in particular, and everyone had a gun. All the children had fowling pieces, particularly the boys, and you shot passenger pigeons or wild pigeons whenever they're around. You shot ducks, or if you saw a snake you shot the snake, just for the hell of it. And if there's anything competing with you for fish, like a heron, an osprey, a bald eagle, you shot that. I mean, it was guns everywhere. Everyone had a gun; everyone was armed, so to speak. Thoreau basically didn't see a deer. Many of the mammals, far more mammals here now than there used to be. And that goes back to what Dr. Primack and his various students have been doing here and the climate change, using
Thoreau's data to today is that we're overrun with deer now.
Deer were an endangered species back in 1800s. I mean and Thoreau never even saw a beaver. You come to Concord today, there's beaver ponds everywhere, because everybody's against trapping, and the animal rights people have the upper hand. There's far too few hunters. Hunters are an endangered species. And then with all the different things that the garden club people are putting out in their yards, which are basically bird feeders for deer, the number of deer is way out of control, and we have no longer--. We did have them in the 1600s and 1700s. We had wolves and mountain lions that kept the deer down. And then, as the colonists got commoner and commoner, and the habitat got less and less and was more open, deer became endangered. Well now, there's way too many deer, spreading Lyme Disease, causing auto accidents. But they're eating the wildflowers that the butterflies need. So it looks like the deer may be partly responsible. The gross overpopulation of deer's responsible for the lack of butterflies and the lack of wildflowers up here.
We also have invasive alien plants coming in, most of them brought in because of their horticultural value, their pretty flowers, pretty bark, pretty berries or something. And, there's wonderful people in the garden clubs, but they wanted something new. So there's many things for deer to eat. There's no hunting pressure. There's no big mammals that are going to kill them. I mean, I've often urged the state government to raise the speed limit on Friday and Saturday nights to 100 miles an hour to do something about the deer problem and the SUV problem, to deaf ears so far. And with our lack of big carnivores, like the mountain lion and the wolf that are long gone, I've suggested that we bring over an endangered species known as the Siberian Tiger, which would really get a lot of these deer. It'd be real fun to see, and it's quite endangered in its last few haunts in the Soviet Far East, in North Korea, wherever, where there's too few deer. But here we have too many deer.
So a lot of things have been changing here. The invasive alien plants, which I lecture on widely, the phragmites, this tall, giant common reed of the Old World, and the purple loosestrife are just eating up and taking over our fresh water marshes. This giant grass called phragmites is filling in the red maple swamps. In the old days, in Thoreau's day, they would take out these red maples for firewood. We had open bogs and sunlight coming in. And now we've got this cane that grows up to about fifteen feet, choking everything.
CK: That's the phragmites?
PA: The phragmites. We have vines, the oriental bittersweet, that are killing the edges of all of our forests, being spread by birds. We have multiflora roses. We have many, many bushes: glossy buckthorn, multiflora rose, Japanese barberry. Most come from northeast Asia, an area with very similar climate to ours in that it has a miserable spring and miserable summer, miserable fall, and miserable winter. So everything's pretty adapted to here. Eighty-five, ninety per cent of our invasive alien plant problems, they're all new, come from this area of northeast Asia, which is identical climate to ours.
CK: When you say new?
PA: New. They were not here. I mean, if we look for guidance on this new issue of invasive alien plants, there's a different suite of plants that are bothering habitats in Florida, or Utah, or California, or Oregon, or here in Concord, Massachusetts. The species change, but we're suddenly being attacked. And most of these have come in intentionally by garden club people wanting a new flower or a new vine, the hot this. Most of them are okay, and they don't reproduce here in wild lands. But some of them--. We have about two dozen species that are rapidly reproducing and changing our entire woodlands: killer vines; we've got something like garlic mustard that kills all the mushroom and the microrhyzal fungi connections between dead leaves, and dead acorns, and dead mice, and provide nutrients for woody plants. And this stuff, also from the Old World, is killing these mushrooms. It's a new issue, and if we look for guidance in our traditional texts, like The Bible or any other religious text, or to our U.S. government, if you look at the Constitution or Bill of Rights, there's nothing about invasive alien plants. If we look at Darwin's work, back in 1800s, a contemporary of Thoreau's, there's no guidance. If we read Walden, there's no guidance. Thoreau doesn't talk about invasive alien plants--.
CK: But why not, I mean--.
PA: They weren't around then.
CK: But people came from Europe and brought seeds.
PA: They brought a few things. But most of our problem plants were agricultural weeds in fields. And so we have developed some herbicides and things and various mechanical ways to try and get rid of [weeds in] fields. But we didn't have the woody plants; the flowering trees and shrubs, and vines that have been brought in, mostly in the 1900s, not in the 1800s and not in the 1700s. You know, when the Pilgrims came here, they didn't bring a whole bunch of bushes of China over here because they look prettier than the native ones. They didn't do it in the 1700s. A few of them came over in the late 1800s, but it's mostly a new thing and particularly since World War II. A lot of the Harvard botanists at the arboretum would go over to China and see something like a forsythia; beautiful yellow flowers in the spring. But it doesn't spread here. You don't see little forsythias jumping up in the landscape. But amongst the various things they brought in, some of these things, particularly the ones with fruit that birds eat, and every fruit wants to be eaten and wants to go through a vertebrate, a mammal, a bird or something, and be pooped out somewhere beyond the shade of the parent tree.
So what's happening is our birds, both our native birds like the robins and the bluebirds, are spreading these things, plus the invasive alien starling from Europe. So, partly as a joke when I give my lectures to Audubon Society groups about the threat of the invasive alien plants, I give them reasons why we should probably go out and kill all the robins and kill all the bluebirds, because they're the ones that have developed a fondness for some of these Asian fruits and, unwittingly eat them, and then they fly off someplace and poop them all over the place. These fruits, such as the multiflora rose from China, are the only reason we have mockingbirds here. They did not occur here back in Thoreau's day. But now with all these fruits here that have escaped from the highway departments and the gardeners who had planted them, they're able to over winter up there, up here. I don't know that that's a good thing. So we have this lack of hunting, which meant an increase in the deer. We have all these invasive alien fruits, and then we have all these bird feeders.
Now, in Thoreau's day, nobody fed the birds. They might have thrown out a few scraps of bread outside, you know in a particularly snowy winter. But they didn't go buy bird seed. And now, our Concord Christmas bird count, one of 2,000 in the country, has the largest number of all the feeder-addicted birds up here. And there are some real problems with bird feeding. But you don't read Emerson, or Thoreau, or Hawthorne and say, "Oh yeah, at my bird feeder today, I saw this, this, and this. They didn't do that. So now--. And people don't think about it, but where's all the seed coming from? Turns out, it's being grown in India, it's being grown in Mali, it's being grown in Ethiopia, it's being grown in Mexico. And then you start thinking, what else is growing in the same field as they harvest this? It turns out that there are some other new invasive alien plants growing amongst the bird seed, and we've found something called leafy spurge here, which will kill a horse or a cow if they eat it, growing under bird feeders. It's just in the contaminated bird seed. Now if you buy, for human consumption, a blueberry, a tomato, or something, they'll tell you it comes from Honduras, it comes from Chile; it tells you where it comes from. You'll never see such a label in bird seed, because it's not required. There's a bunch of problems there, but Thoreau never had to deal with bird seed.
And another thing that comes up is that, again on this climate change thing, which is in everybody's hair right now, is where were all of the flowers, and the birds, and the mammals, and the butterflies, and so forth that Thoreau knew in the 1800s? Where were they twenty thousand years ago when we were under two thousand feet of ice? I think it's an important question, because that wasn't the first glaciation; that's just the most recent of many, many glaciations. And it turns out that all of our birds, and all of our trees, and all of our butterflies, and all of our flowers twenty thousand years ago were down in Georgia. They were down in the Carolinas, in the southern Appalachians, because, as that ice sheet spreads south, this whole ecosystem moved, you know a mile a year, or so to speak, on average, down south. And then when the glaciers started melting, due to natural cycles not caused by man's activity, and the glaciers retreated, then our whole ecosystem moved through the Carolinas, moved through the Virginias, like West Virginia and Virginia, through Maryland, and has made it up here.
Well, that's very interesting when we look at today and we think everything is stable. Well, with all this increase in greenhouse gasses that we have here, due to gross overpopulation, industrialization, and everything else, our particular flora and fauna, which is pretty much as Thoreau knew it, with some of these changes, will be found up in New Brunswick and Quebec most likely. And the flora and fauna of, say the Chesapeake and Virginia is what will be growing here, or living and flying here in a hundred or so years.
In a worst case scenario, if we get this economy back on track, and everybody has a job, and all the factories move up, and we all get big cars again, we make big oil deposit finds up in the Artic Ocean, then we get South Carolina. In an average, most likely scenario, we get the flora and fauna of Virginia. In a worst case scenario of full employment and full consumption, we get South Carolina.
PA: Well, in a few hundred years. We're probably going to be getting what's living in New Jersey within fifty years. But these things all shift towards the pole or towards the equator in a cycle that's supposed to take tens of thousands of years, but we may be accelerating into a few hundred years. So partly jokingly, when people say, "What can I do to save the future of our ecosystems here in Concord, Massachusetts for the long term future for my grandchildren?" I say, "You should send all of your money to the Nature Conservancy in Virginia or South Carolina, because those are the species; you've got to save them down there if there're going to survive to grow up here in a few hundred years.
I mean, the creatures will pretty much survive, but they just won't survive here. We start losing the northern things, and we start getting the southern things down here. But one of the fallacies on the climate change issue is, a lot of people say, "Oh, we have cardinals here we never used to have. That proves climate change." "Oh," I say. "Garbage." That's only because of the fact that we have ten thousand bird feeders in the valley here, and these things can't survive the winter up here under deep crusty snow, and they wouldn't be here if it wasn't for all the subsidy of all the bird feeders that we have here. And that goes for tufted titmice; it goes for red-bellied woodpeckers. A lot of these southern things that we have here are here either because of invasive alien fruit suddenly available at times of food stress, or it's the welfare gravy chain, train, of the bird feeders.
CK: So you're not a proponent of these--.
PA: I think bird feeding should be banned. I think we should napalm the countryside, so to speak, and have work gangs of people out working on invasive plants and applying herbicide. But all the greenies say, "Oh, I don't want any herbicide. It'll cause cancer somewhere down the line." But if we don't start using proper small amounts of herbicide on a lot of these things and an all-properties war on invasive alien plants, I think we can kiss of native American nature and natural history. We started out here in Massachusetts with one thousand six hundred and thirty species of what we call vascular plants at the time of the Pilgrims. This is in an official state publication, a county-by-county checklist of the vascular flora of Massachusetts put out by Mass Wildlife and the Nature Conservancy.
CK: And you--. Were you part of it?
PA: No. No, I don't take credit for it. But I'm one of the main consumers of the information, a disperser. I analyze the scientific data, and in most cases rather than create it, try to interpret it in a way that is meaningful or horrendous or shake somebody up to get them thinking about it. But now we have close to three thousand species of vascular plants reproducing in the wild in Connecticut, in Massachusetts. We haven't lost many total extinction things, because in some remote area they still survive. But we've almost doubled the number of things growing here, and a certain twenty or thirty look like they're going to take over.
So I predict within several hundred years, our sixteen hundred plus species of native trees, flowers, and shrubs will be reduced to well below a thousand as we lose entire ecosystems to some of these invasive plants. The oriental bittersweet, for one--. That vine is capable of killing every single tree in Massachusetts and is in the process of doing it right now in many areas. And no one's doing anything about it. The state government, and I did work for the state government for three or four years until I was unceremoniously dumped by Mitt Romney. But with Executive Office for Environmental Affairs, there's a--. We passed--. The legislature passed a list back in January 2007, after seven or eight years of heavy delay by the green gardening landscape industry who wanted to keep selling all these things, and were making a lot of money selling burning bush, for instance, you know the red-leafed thing that you see in every parking lot of every chain store selling all these Chinese goods. You know, the great WalMart, and Target, the fashion store from China, and whatever, you know, it's very invasive. But we banned a hundred of these things from import into Massachusetts, and we banned a hundred plants from being sold in Massachusetts, and it's a total waste of time because it's a two-legged tripod that will blow over in the slightest breeze. There was nothing saying it's illegal to have any of this stuff growing on your property, whether it's government property, business property, private property, land trust property, town property. Show us what you're doing to get rid of it, and if it doesn't work we'll go back and can try more herbicide, more mechanical work teams or something working on this stuff. And it's getting out of control. I mean I wish that we'd been able to do something in the 1990s.
This thing is just exploding in many, many habitats here, being overwhelmed, and we predict, we assume—I don't have an exact number, but somewhere around thirty to thirty-five per cent of the landscape in Massachusetts is completely alien already. Most of it is disturbed soil, but other habits that aren't disturbed are still full of these things. If you go up into a mountaintop in the hilly country where you get poor soil, and no sunlight has gotten into the woods, things are fairly okay. The deer are spreading fruits of some of these things and pooping them through the woods. But we have ice storms here that take town woods, and everything that comes in after an ice storm is invasive. If hurricanes would blow down woods now and then--. Everything that's coming in now is invasive plants. They're much more aggressive, and the birds like the fruits of the invasive plants. They're more sugary. They'll sometimes eat them, rather than eat the native fruits that they're supposed to be spreading. They maybe don't have as much sugar in them or something, or are not advertised on the local TV that the birds and mammals are watching.
So there's a lot of changes taking place here. But here in the Concord area, we have a wonderful group called the Concord Land Conservation Trust, which has many, many properties; the town has bought many, many properties. We have a big section of the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge that's protected. We've got the Walden Woods Project and other groups that have saved a lot of development around Walden Pond and the surrounding woods. There've been major efforts to protect the Estabrook Woods we share with Carlisle, and Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology owns the middle of that. We have bear in that right now. Now and then we have moose; we have porcupines. The mammals have come back greatly in Concord, because nobody traps. It's very difficult to trap anything now.
And the most pleasant bit of wildlife--. If I were to take Henry David Thoreau around today, if we can get him out of this cyberspace or wherever he is, and show him, the thing I would take him to first is not Walden, because I think he'd be upset seeing eight hundred thousand people swimming there, and with very little reference to the landscape. I mean there should be other swimming holes people could go to other than Walden. It's a little too sacred to just be the local place. You get eight hundred thousand people swimming there, four hundred thousand are doing number one in the pond while they are swimming. Well I don't know how healthy this is. But I would take him to a place south of White Pond, because a mammal that Thoreau never discussed was the American beaver, which is what fanned the expansion of the French and the English out into the Rockies was the search for the beaver pelts, a wonderful full fur that you made hats and coats out of. He never had beavers. There was no beavers here.
[28 min] Well because there was no beavers here--. They'd all been exterminated, south of the White Mountains. I think he may have found them once up in Moosehead Lake area or something visiting the American Indians. But there was no beaver ponds. Well if you don't have beaver ponds, then you don't have dead trees standing in water. Well now with the ban on trapping and the increase in mammals coming in from everywhere, we now have a lot of beaver ponds here. And what they're doing is they're flooding forests. And the trees die. It's not bad. If you're a great blue heron--. Because the great blue heron wants to put its nest in a tree surrounded by water so that raccoons or fishers or whatever might come up and eat its eggs or its younger babies doesn't want to swim through water full of snapping turtles and water snakes.
So now we have several places, and one in particular, where we have 60 active nests of great blue herons, a bird he never saw breeding. And he only saw occasionally the ones that weren't shot by kids with rifles or whatever. And they're having like three babies each. And it's a beautiful beaver pond down there. And all together right now there's like, all the babies standing around in the nests, there's like 300 of these huge pterodactyl-like, fish-eating birds. And they're all over the place. It's a scene that he would never imagine in Concord. Because here you got a beaver pond, you got beaver lodges, beaver dams, dead trees with hundreds and hundreds of huge birds in it. And we now have for the first time an osprey--. It's a fish-eating eagle, breeding in Concord on a cell phone tower, which is a separate issue. He would be amazed. And he'd be amazed at the number of deer.
CK: Did you say on a cell phone tower?
PA: A cell phone tower. And they got it removed--.
CK: That's where he's nesting?
PA: Yeah, because cell--. They like to see a long distance and they don't want anyone coming up to eat their babies either. So the osprey's nesting on a cell phone tower, and I understand that the nest was taken down last year. I didn't know about it last year. It was taken down because it was interfering with the transmission of some soccer scores or something. And they're nesting again. We're about ready--. We're trying to decide whether to make an issue out of this. But it's pretty interesting.
CK: What sort of issue?
PA: Well, should they be able to--. This is a protected species, the osprey. We almost lost it, along with the bald eagle with DDT, because it was getting as much DDT and having egg shell thinning problems, just like the more famous bald eagle. So they're really not su--. But I guess they got a permit, because you can do anything you want with two things that irritate the hell out of a lot of people around here is--. Well, you don't hear it so much here after 9-11, but because of terrorism you can do anything. And also affordable housing. You can fill in a swamp. You could fill in Walden Pond if you put in a couple of affordable housing units in whatever you're building there. Two awful laws. But a philosophical question comes up is, would Thoreau have a cell phone? I don't think so. I don't think he'd want to be bothered. And I don't think he's going to have You Tube, and I don't think he's having a Facebook page. There's a time and a place for conversations, especially with call answering, whatever it is and taping of calls.
[31:00] I don't think he'd have a cell phone. People ask me, "Peter, you're like one of the naturalist crazies around here. What's your cell phone number?" And I say, "I don't have a cell phone. Thoreau wouldn't have a cell phone." Cell phones are for drug dealers and soccer moms, and I'm neither. And some of this technology is, I think, ruining the appreciation of nature and the enjoyment of nature. It has gotten so damn high tech. People are just all telephone this, telephone that, cell phone this and IPod this. And I don't want--. I mean we had a wonderful local Concord resident, R.D. Sahl, who's our television newscaster here. And I heard him speak the other day. And he was marveling at technology and how useful it is for the news industry. You got all these Blackberries and IPhones and stuff like that. And I had to say, "Wait a minute. I'm a bit of a curmudgeon. I don't want an IPhone. I don't want a Blackberry. The only Twittering I want to hear is a goldfinch flying over a field of goldfinches." And I think Henry would felt he same way. I mean things have gotten too techno. And it's destroying the enjoyment and the solitude that you might feel, and finding things. It has gotten too high tech for me. But then again I'm an old dinosaur.
But what do we have here in Concord today? We have a lot of protected land. I mean it's a marvelous place to live. I've lived at various places around the world and around greater Boston. But having the rivers here--. And the word Concord is from the concordance of these two rivers coming together and forming another one. And the old name for the river Meadows here was Musketaquid. But I really thank the people in Concord that not only care about themselves and their own bank account and so forth. But the amount of money that has been raised that could've been spent on something selfish, to protect them landscapes here of the Revolutionary War period, of Thoreau's day, and the woods and the fields. I mean it's so great. I mean these people could've bought a round trip ticket on the Titanic say, but instead they gave some money to protect some swamp, some woods, some hills, some pond. So it's very pleasant. As you go a little bit closer into the city, I mean there's the town of Newton. Newton's a wonderful town. I've lived there. I'll be buried there. But there's no wilderness there.
We have our little mini-wildernesses here in Concord. And it's very good for the spirit to have some places you can walk in the woods for quite a ways, and get lost. It's wonderful that you can get lost in Concord still, and that you can canoe or kayak for miles and miles and miles of rivers. I can't remember if it was Hawthorne or somebody like that, but somebody said that this is perhaps the most estimable place in the world to live. I mean it's close enough to Boston. You can get in and out without having to live in the city. And it has hills, and it has woods, and it has ponds. And it has got history. And it's a wonderful place, and people do feel some pride of place, which you don't get in most towns. Most towns, some chock-a-block housing thing. They'll have some strip mall or whatever. But there's a sense of place and tradition here that it's wonderful. I wish that there was a test that we could give to new residents to check on their mental caring for things beyond their own bank account.
CK: Well can you teach that to new residents?
PA: I don't think. I don't think--. Well there's some of that, but with the state guidelines and federal guidelines what they're teaching, I don't know how much local control there is here. And I don't really get that most of the kids here are really getting into nature the way they really could. I think Henry would be disturbed to see that if he looked at education today and see what they're teaching, that local natural history that so fascinated him and so fascinated so many people including myself, is really not in the curriculum. Biology has been taken over by the medical profession. Biology used to be something you looked at, you could feel, you could touch, was visible. And eventually found out there's cells, there's DNA and other stuff going on. But right now biology has been taken over. It's all looking into microscopes now. It's for diseases, for some new crop, human health, for your pet's health, or whatever. And it's all DNA. And I think, and Henry would think, that every kid here in this town or any other town should probably be required to learn a hundred of the common trees, and shrubs, and wildflowers, and a hundred of the common birds, and mammals, and reptiles before they're allowed to graduate. Now the kids do have to learn a hundred chemical elements. And they have to learn a hundred physical theories. But they don't have to know anything that they see, drive or live with 52 weeks a year, or 50 weeks a year if they can afford a vacation. Local natural history is not part of biology. It's all cells and medical stuff right now, and very, very little on the things that are going on in the outside world right now.
And then we find it particularly depressing, and Henry would too, about another issue called "playing fields. And it's quite an issue here in our town.
[36:00] It used to be that we had a team, and you made the team or you didn't make the team. Like at the--. You had one baseball team. You had one basketball team. And you had one football team. And you had one field hockey team. And if you were athletic enough or whatever, you made the team. And if you didn't make the team, go do something else. Well now with a sport called, "soccer," which is played mainly by communists and terrorists as far as I can see, we now have vast area of Walden Woods has been stripped to put in soccer fields. The whole northwest quadrant between Route 2 and the high school has been--. And we had a big fight about it. But the bird watchers are outnumbered by the yuppies right now, and the people with the SUVs, and too many kids, and living in their mega-McMansions, and overwhelmingly defeated. So they agreed to clear-cut Walden, this whole corner of Walden Woods, for more soccer fields. And they had a farm, Arena Farms, right near Walden, they had financial troubles. And that's all going to be soccer fields. They use the word "playing fields," but it's all soccer, for Concord Academy.
Middlesex School, where a presidential candidate in the last cycle, Bill Richardson, went for four years, they decided to clear cut a vast area of the northwest side of Estabrook Woods, the last home of our bears and moose, occasional moose, for more soccer fields. This is all ChemLawn soccer fields, and then you've got a wall of forest around it which is being totally overwhelmed by Oriental bittersweet now. Now the Nashoba Brooks School, they want to have playing fields. There's playing fields going up everywhere, because you don't have to make the team now. It's now--. And not only they just have boys playing, but they have girls playing soccer too. And you don't have to make a team. Everyone makes the team. So all we have is these vast areas of ChemLawn where mommy and daddy can go out and sip their Starbucks on a Saturday morning and watch their kids being babysit as they kick some stupid ball around for a one-to-nothing score in some stupid game invented by foreigners. And we're losing so much of our landscape to soccer field. I think soccer should be banned. I mean when we looked at the characters involved in 9-11, the great disaster almost 10 years ago, all 19 of those hijackers played soccer as youths. And I think Homeland Security ought to know about this. I mean there's a problem there. It's not even--. Don't get me onto this.
CK: So are you saying this in jest, or in--?
PA: No, partly in real, because we're having--. It's paving over with ChemLawn so many unique parts of Concord, which has the oldest record of what's happening in the outdoor world of biology and ecology in the entire country, and it's being paved over by soccer fields with ChemLaw. There's a problem there, because when you look at the youths, there's two things. It's organized sports on ChemLawn-type places. And it's the electronic monitors on televisions and computers. And their idea of nature is to turn on the computer and watch some Live-Cam in some water hole in the Serengeti or something like that, if they were to bother to look at that.
I find the Internet is the end of civilization, rather than a unifying force. I think there are some serious problems in the amount of time people are spending on the Internet and the virtual experience rather than real experience. And most parents won't--. Another reality check here in Concord, if I was a parent and had little kids, would I want them running around in the nature? Well, when I look back when my mother was alive, and my brothers and I--. After school, if we weren't playing sports on a given day, we just took off into the woods. And we swam across the river. And we got leeches. And we got cuts now and then. Occasionally we got lost. And I got treed by a pig. You have adventures that you learn from. But that was before we had Lyme Disease. We don't have Lyme Disease back 50 years ago. Now we got it because of too many deer. Perhaps global climate change is bringing it further north. But I never got a tick back in the '50s. I could roll around in the grass anywhere in Concord. Never got a tick. Didn't even know what they were. And now they're everywhere. And now we've got, seemingly, an increase in poison ivy. We've got some mosquito-borne diseases, which you could also get playing soccer, of course. But the parents are sort of afraid of the woods. And these parents now haven't got any training in natural history. They call every plant poison ivy. They don't know what it is. And the kids are not encouraged, "Oh, get lost Johnny. Just go poke around." No, now the kids have to be programmed. "You're doing soccer at 4:00,and you're having a play date at 5:00, and you're doing this at 6:00. And stay in touch with Mommy on the cell phone."
Mommies become taxi drivers. My mother never even drove a car. And the kids--. If it's 3:00 o'clock and we take off, "Just be home at 6:00." Did she know where we were? No. Did she care? No. But she knew we'd have enough survival skills that we'd get back somehow. And it wasn't monitored. It's like you're in jail right now. I mean you have to do this at 3:00 and this at 4:00, this at 5:00, this at 6:00. "What am I supposed to do now, Mommy?" We used to entertain ourselves. And a lot of that involved, "Ooo, look at that snake. Look at that frog. Look at that bird. You got into nature." But I think the kids are repelled from just exploring, just hanging out with other buddies. Go out in the woods. Go out in the fields. Build a log and float down the stream, stuff we used to do. And we could still do it, but if the kids would get off the soccer fields and off the video monitors. There's some serious issues here that I think would bother Thoreau.
An interesting book is something by this E.O. Wilson mentioned earlier called The Future of Life. And in the Forward to it or Preface, whatever, there's about a 12-page letter by E.O. Wilson of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology on a walk around Walden with Henry 150 years later, where he's talking to Henry about what are the changes that have gone on in the world, as well as around Walden. And it's sort of a fascinating read. We had Don Henley of the Walden Woods Project with the Eagles Band, who has been very instrumental in protecting these woods out here and actually read that entire thing with Ed Wilson in the audience and myself, who's mentioned, because of our Biodiversity Day that we did.
Another interesting thing is a whole bunch of naturalist authors have felt spiritually at home here in Concord, even though it's a very difficult place to live, because it's relatively high real estate here. But we've been very pleased to have a guy named David Sibley, a famous bird book author and artist, move to Concord. There's a guy name Dick Walton, who's done many books, but also tapes, and CDs, and videos on butterflies, and skippers, and birds, and now spiders. The head of—staff ornithologist at Mass Audubon lives here, a guy named Simon Perkins. The president of Mass Audubon, Laura Johnson, lives here in Concord. Two of her vice presidents of Audubon live here in Concord. We have the flagship place of the National Wildlife Refuge System here, the Great Meadows, which is the best, most accessible fresh water wetland, whether you--. I led a group there for, a group called RiverFest, Saturday. And we saw Blanding's turtles and painted turtles and all sorts of water snakes, and nesting pie-billed grebes. It's a wonderful place.
[43:00] We got a lot of places for habitat and a lot of naturalists here. And on this Christmas bird count, the official one run by National Audubon, we're the largest in the entire United States, and have been for about 10 years on the number of participants. We get like 300-400 people walking around in the woods and the fields, and checking bird feeders, and trudging through the snow, or sleet, or whatever is happening here, counting the birds. And 2,000 counts in the United States, we're far and--. We're over 100 people more. So there's more naturalists here, more energy, but more bird feeders. But there's a lot of intellectual capital here among our authors and artists and NGO, non-governmental organizations. The Nature Conservancy head mast just lives over the line in Acton. So it's a very fertile place. The New England Wildflower Society headquarters are just two towns to the south down in Framingham. And the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and the affiliated Farlow and Gray Herbariums at Harvard are just a train ride away from Concord. And that's got the largest library and collection of specimens in non-government hands in the entire world essentially. And the collections at Harvard.
So it's a very good place for a naturalist, even though the weather's sort of a little grey and awful at times down here. There's just such a great tradition. You feel the ghost of Thoreau when you walk in the woods. When I was a kid I [was] supposed to read Walden. But a lot of his heavy philosophy I didn't care about. But I used it as a finding bird guide, because now and then he'd say, "Well I went down to the Gowing's Swamp and I heard a hermit thrush on April 17th." No, I didn't care about his view of slavery at the time. But I did want to go to Gowing's Swamp on April 17th to see if I could get a hermit thrush.
So there's a mixture of natural history and philosophy back and forth, back and forth in Walden. It's a bit of a difficult read. It's more famous than it might be if people weren't forced to read it I suppose. But there's so many truths in there. And you'd wonder what he would think about the situations today. He's looked down upon by some people as just some guy who wasted a Harvard education, made pencils for a while, and then basically became a self-declared inspector of clouds and snowflakes and did a lot of botanizing and bird watching and very introspective. Wonderful person.
[45:26] But I remember as a kid, growing up as a kid, or attempting to grow up unsuccessfully here in Concord, that there was a great big house for Emerson. And they'd take all the school kids in there. And there was a great big house for, two houses, where Hawthorne lived. And all the kids went through there. And there was a wonderful house and a back house where Louisa May Alcott lived, and the Alcotts. Where did Thoreau live? I don't know? There's some rocks out by Walden Pond someplace. Because his cabin was destroyed and ended up as just firewood someplace. His birth house hadn't been protected. But there was no Thoreau place. There was a pond. But there was no house. It was like, there was four famous authors. Only three of them had houses. Where the hell was Thoreau? And it's interesting. Emerson was more famous than Thoreau back in the 1800s.
If you go to New Zealand--. I've been working in a hundred countries around the world in eco-tourism, and you go to some little town in New Zealand, they'll have an Emerson Street, named after Ralph Waldo. But they don't have a Thoreau Street. But Thoreau has suddenly, in the 1900s, eclipsed Emerson, mainly because Thoreau, even though he didn't write that many books, became more famous. And Emerson was more of an essayist, and he loved giving a one hour lecture. And I give two or three lectures a week around Massachusetts, and I feel more like Emerson. I enjoy trying to entertain and horrify my audiences. Thoreau probably didn't want to do that much, he was more of a loner. But he has eclipsed Emerson in fame and popularity right now. And so now we are resurrecting the Thoreau birth house up on Virginia Road in Concord and a fundraising drive trying to protect the house he was born in and lived in his first few years. They have, mid-century, pinpointed the sight where the Thoreau cabin was, but decided to rebuild an exact replica of his cabin beside the parking lot by the pond on a different site over at Walden, which is rather interesting. They couldn't leave it in the exact site because the high school kids would break the windows and drink beer in it probably. But it's a fabulous thing, and every time I go there when the resurrected, or rebuilt, cabin is there, there's always some family from Ohio or Iowa coming in there. And they look. And they see the simple bed, and they see the simple chair, and the simple desk, and the simple fireplace, which his oven, his stove and his heating. And the kids' reaction, rather than awe—"Where was his bathroom?" That's the main question, you know? He had a little honey bucket, you know, and he probably threw it in the water. I don't know what's in the water in Walden now, but, no bathroom. Miles of cord wood out back, you know, to heat his house, and heat his food, etc.
CNK: You referenced spiritual benefits of spending time in the woods. Can you talk about that?
[48:13] PA: There is something special--. Whether you're alone, or whether you're with some family members or group of friends, there's something about just sitting on a rock and watching the sun go down, or just listening to the music. There's not much of that encouraged right now, because things have to be too fast, you know, the television era, the Internet era, and so forth, but just quiet reflection is just not done, not encouraged, because nobody's making any money on it, nobody's selling you anything to allow you to do this. And Thoreau is not really into money, I mean, I have a similar bank account to his, and I've got a whole attic full of books, most of which I wrote myself, too. But sort of communicating with yourself and communicating with nature is not really too encouraged right now, unless you're going to spend two hundred dollars for a visit to a shrink. Maybe that's the equivalent. But there's a lot of self-healing that can be done, and having a place of solitude, or nature, having your place, your spots that you feel comfortable, is a good feeling. And many people should or could have some places where, you know—"I feel at home here out in the woods on this little bank overlooking this river," or something like that, to gather your thoughts and think, without some professional telling you what to do, or TV, or computer website telling you what to do or what to think. There is something to be said for Henry on being alone. There's times to be social, there's times to be solitary. And he understood it. Most people don't.
CNK: Talk a little bit about your own path to the woods, your own people and —
PA: Well, I had Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts. I guess they still have them, but they're relatively low profile as far as the media goes. But my family was interested in nature. I go back to John and Priscilla on the Mayflower so I feel I am blue-blooded. What does that make me? Eleventh or twelfth-generation Anglo-American, I guess. And I feel privileged to be born here in Concord. But my family was involved in sort of being among the first members of the first Audubon Society in the late 1800s. And then my father got interested in birds in the early 1900s, and we spent a lot of time canoeing, mountain climbing. My Swedish grandparents had a farm up in New Hampshire. In the summer time I was encouraged to be up there. When I saw—I remember when I was six years old seeing my first red-eyed virio, black and white warbler, whatever. But we had the books around the house. And then my father, whenever we were canoeing, going for a walk, driving down the road, climbing a mountain, if we did see a red-breasted grossbeak, if we did see a great blue heron, if we did hear a towhee, we tried to see it. It was a sport, a game to try to see that thing. And we had some of the books around the house. I didn't know it was unusual to be a bird watcher until I reached puberty a couple of years ago, so to speak. But I think there's some pressure against being a bird watcher in conformist society.
[51:20] But as a kid--. I mean if you want to get kids into nature, it's best to hit them before they hit junior high school, because then they all want to conform and be cool and use the word "like" every third word, which I can't stand. It's a four-letter word, L-I-K-E, the way it's used most of the time. But I'd love—We've got to turn the children on to nature before seventh grade. You know how we have competitive sports. I was with the local high school. I mean I played in their football team. I was first-string safety and part-time offensive end, and we almost had a perfect season my Senior year—but we won one of our games. But I'd like to see some competitive sports, of nature sports, but it could be cooperative as well as competitive where, you know on a football team, a basketball team, a baseball team, a field hockey team, a soccer team, whatever, you have different position players.
One of my little visions is to have competitive—like our biodiversity teams, where some children, say a couple of women get together, school girls, any age, elementary school, junior high school, high school, and they could learn all the flowers. And another person's going to learn all the trees and shrubs, and another person's going to learn all the mushrooms, and another person's going to learn all the birds, and another person's going to know all the mammals. You could have a biodiversity team representing Concord playing a neighboring town, say Lincoln or Acton or something, and you don't know what habitat you're going into.
And this wouldn't work too well in mid-winter; the scores won't be too high, you know. But from April through November there's a lot of stuff out here.
[52:53]. So you could have, instead of just the football team and big thugs beating each other around, or big mutants that are seven feet tall playing basketball, or whatever, you could have kids with physical disabilities, but they're trained. They are going to know every wildflower, or every moth, or every butterfly, something like that. And then you take them to a site; you don't announce it in advance. So you've got your team, your biodiversity team from, say, Concord vs. Acton. And they take you to some state park, state forest, some swamp. All right, you've got three hours. Go out there with a digital camera or without a digital camera and go out and see what you do. And you score, instead of being stupid soccer scores of 2 to 1, it's going to be 722 to 644. And then you're going to find out, "Geez, we got hammered on the mushrooms. We've got to get somebody to learn mushrooms." And you could have courses, and not necessarily in one town, but, you know, some mushroom experts with PowerPoint or in the field, could get you up to speed on mushrooms. And somebody else is going to be lichens, and somebody else is going to be doing moths with sheets at night. And somebody else is going to teach you mammal tracking.
[53:54] CNK: Moths with what at night?
PA: Moths. You put up white sheets with a big light, and all these moths come, and you get a couple of hundred species. We'll be doing that on July 3rd and 4th here in Concord again. But to bring nature, to get people fascinated by nature. I mean all education is is to expose you to miles and miles and tons and tons of subjects you're never going to make a nickel in. I mean, why are you learning Shakespeare? Why are you learning calculus? But expose them to nature, local natural history, in addition to all these other useless things they're being taught in schools that they're never going to deal with in whatever one or two professions they end up in. I mean you're exposing people. I don't need chemistry. Why did I take all this chemistry? I'm not a chemist. I don't have any test tubes. What do I care? But you do expose people to everything. But they're not being exposed to local natural history, because your biology teachers that come out of your universities, they're all spending all their time looking into microscopes doing cells and DNA or whatever. In the elementary schools they sometimes get some kits, but the teacher doesn't—. They only have to stay one day ahead of the kits. So what do you do? You do dinosaurs. Well, no kid's going to come in and say, "Hey, Teacher, I saw this dinosaur." Or it's endangered species they're never going to see. It's dinosaurs that have been dead for sixty-five million years. It's always things that are impertinent. But see the teacher doesn't know his or her wildflowers, birds or butterflies. She does not want to lead a field trip with these kids and have the kids say, "Hey, Teacher, what's this beetle? What's this frog? What's this bird? What's this butterfly?" They don't know. It's way too complicated compared to just getting a kid about pandas or jaguars or rainforest orangutans or dinosaurs or some of these other things that they do. I guess it's okay, but I think they should kill all the dinosaurs. I mean they're totally immaterial. They're not around.
[55:36] CNK: Can we involve the community in leading these walks?
PA: Well it's not just a walk. But we've got to get into the education system such that there's going to be a test. You've got to pass and know some of the stuff. I mean I figure the easiest thing is 100 and 100, 100 plants and 100 animals. And let the local naturalist decide which hundred plants, which hundred animals are most important for your town. But of course the government wants, you know, one set standard that you can do for the whole country. Well the kids up here don't need to know about road runners and sidewinder rattlesnakes. And the kid down in Tucson doesn't have to know about pink lady's slippers that grow up here and don't happen to grow in the desert. But it would be nice to get the local naturalist, you know, the birders, and the botanists, etc., together to decide. And so that would be a mix of the common keystone, common trees and shrubs, and the invasives, and maybe a few of the specialty rarity things that you might have in a given town. And maybe you could up that number from a hundred to several hundred at some point.
But local natural history is ignored in the biology textbooks, because the publishers, and whoever runs the education boards, they want one book, one test for the whole country. And that doesn't work on the local level. So there's a lot to be done.
CK: Let's take a little breather. [Recorder is turned off and back on.] Okay. Rolling again.
PA: Okay, we were discussing competitive, and/or cooperative nature sports. And it could be done within elementary schools between different classrooms. Doesn't have to be the whole, you know, a team. Be great fun. One of the things I've noticed is that every school essentially has 100 computers. And every school has got 100 footballs and basketballs. And every school has got 100 microscopes. But there isn't a school in the country basically that has any macroscopes, which is a name for telescopes and binoculars. I've had to lead 100 field trips when I worked for the state government of school kids in the neighboring woodlands or swamps near their schools, as part of some state Biodiversity Day effort that I did under Secretary Bob Durant. And I point out a Baltimore Oriole up in a tree or a red-winged blackbird singing out in a cattail. And the kids didn't have any binoculars.
[57:52] Oh, they got 100 microscopes looking at these bloody cells and DNA and whatever. But they don't have binoculars. Most kids can get through an entire whatever. They're seventeen years old. And never looked through a binocular, never learned how to focus a binocular. And it's amazing what they could see.
One business proposal I've toyed around with was to make suitcases full of binoculars in an aluminum case with a low jack or something like that, and put numbers on the binoculars, and see if we could find our local PTA, wealthy individual, an Audubon Society, some group, do a fundraiser, and in addition to all the books in the library and all the balls at the sports room, and all the books, the teacher's reference room or whatever, and all the microscopes in the biology labs and other labs, why isn't there some binoculars nature teams could use if you had competitive nature [game], or any individuals could borrow the binoculars and this weekend go out and poke around. And teach kids how to focus on something far, something close, something far. Get them used to it, and move around the light pieces. It's not that complicated.
[59:00] But have suitcases full of binoculars and suitcases full of books, such as Peter Alden's National Audubon Society Field Guide to New England, by Knopf, 1998 and later editions, so that every kid can borrow a field guide and borrow binoculars for at least a half a day, or some Saturday field trip, or an after school field trip, and they don't--. I mean there just should be a Volkswagen of binoculars, or I guess maybe today we say Toyota of binoculars or something, you know, something in the $1500 range, so that for $2,000 some individuals or a group of individuals can somehow put into that school borrowable binoculars. You'd number--. This is number one, this is number two, this is number three. You'd have some numbers you can imprint on them as you pass them out to the kids. And then when you collect all the binoculars, you're missing 17; you know that Billy had number 17. "Oh yeah, here it is in my bag."
Would do wonders. And I think if you could--. If you could expose the children of America to a one half day, one hour, actually look through binoculars, actually see and study a red-tailed hawk, or a eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly, or a muskrat chewing on some cattails, or a bald eagle flying by, or even a common thing like a cardinal, but with binoculars, I think you could hook maybe ten percent of them into caring about nature the rest of their lives. But they're not even being exposed, because of the total lack of binoculars in any school system.
I mean there might be one or two exceptions. Occasionally I'd lead a walk and encourage the kids to bring binoculars. You got thirty kids in a nature walk. You got two binoculars that haven't been cleaned in twenty years, and the lenses are looking in different directions, or something like that. It's not done. But I think it's very important. And then these students that might be hooked on birding, or at least exposed to it and understand it and see, "Boy with binoculars you really see some stuff." And you can use them to identify flowers that you don't want to walk closer to. I think it would be a good thing, because we want them not to become necessarily totally part of the Green Party in the German sense, but at least to be thinking a little more green and caring a little bit more about nature. But they can't see them.
CK: What did you mean, "in the German sense"?
PA: Well there is a political party called the Green Party, which might be too avant-garde, too Leftist for some people, but you can still be a nature lover. In fact most of the land preservation to save birds, and mammals, and habitats, and flowers, is actually Republican money. It's interesting that Democrats give money to causes and Republicans give money for land preservation. And you cannot exclude the Republicans from the nature debate, because a lot of them control, or have the power and financial resources to protect land, and maybe for selfish view-scape reason, but some of them really do care about nature, whereas Democrats care about causes. And they usually don't have enough money to buy the land that the Republicans do. But we're in it together, along with--. Actually the Independents are more common than anybody up here in New England, and it'll do a vote either way.
[1:01:54] But we've got to include them in it. So there's a lot that could be done here, but exposing the kids to the nature, something larger than a cell--. I mean I see a split in biology between microbiology, which is smaller than a millimeter. You need a microscope. And macrobiology. Now, as we try to understand evolution and body processes of the things you can see, the vertebrates, and the fish, and the larger insects, and whatever, we do need microbiology. But it seems that macrobiology, the going out--.
I mean I majored in zoology. I went to school at the University of Arizona in Tucson, you know, as far away from Concord as you could get. And I was going to major in zoology. And I was interested in macaws flying over the rain forest of the Amazon, and the thundering herds of wildebeests in the Serengeti. And for a whole year all I'm doing is staring into microscopes. You know, it's cells, and all this medical health stuff, which I didn't care about, because I'm an ex-Christian Scientist, so I didn't want to know anything about health, or medicine. And it so turned me off I changed my major. I mean just--. Zoology was so boring. I mean they start with all this microscopic crap. And maybe my senior year I might have had something to do with behavior of some animal that I actually could see.
It was just taught all wrong. And they should separate the teaching of zoology or biology. One is the pre-med, pre-vet path, or you're going to be working for some pharmaceutical company. And the other one is not pre-med, pre-vet. You're actually either going to be working as a field biologist on animal behavior, or leading eco-tourism tours to the Galapagos, or just having it as a sidelight, just part of your life, even if it's not your major source of income. But they've got--. They make biology so boring in the educational system. And yet when you look at television ratings of documentaries, it's the wildlife shows that actually are most heavily viewed. It's the bears, and it's the lions in the Serengeti. Of course some of it's violence. And but whales, and tigers--. And people do want to see some of this big stuff. But they're not getting taught it in school. It's all pre-med, pre-vet as far as I call it.
CK: Well what does it tell you that they do want to see that?
[1:04:12] PA: They do. They're pretty--. Of course--. Any creature's fascinated by the creatures that could kill them. Now for us we're fascinated with pythons. We're fascinated with lions and tigers. And I've had experience with all these things. I've petted Anacondas. I've had lions sniff my tent. I've been there, done that as far as many of these experiences go. And so we are fascinated by it. But the one problem I find on wildlife documentary TV and Animal Kingdom, Animal Planet--. There's a wonderful guy, Jeff Corwin, who lives here in Massachusetts in Marshfield who's a friend of mine, does these footages. But they're always in some fabulous eco place far, far away. You know, it's under the oceans, it's in Antarctica with the Emperor penguins, or it's in the Serengeti, or Victoria Falls, or it's the, you know, some place in Australian Plains.
I think we've got to fascinate people with their home towns, and the flora and fauna of their home towns. And part of this is, goes back to that climate change thing. We just can't consume that much fossil fuel. Now I mean I happen to live in the right era as far as getting on an airplane and being able to fly around the world pretty cheaply. But that's not going to happen, because all our oil's going to be gone. In forty years we won't even have any airplanes.
[1:05:25] CK: Well how is this going to work with folks who need places to live and affordable places?
PA: There's plenty of places to live. I mean they're concentrated near cities. Your view from Manhattan's very different from your view from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Now there's plenty of places to live. And we've got to have population stabilization, or, which is one of the things that has disappeared. With all this over emphasis on climate change you're not seeing anybody talking about over population and family planning and the disasters that this gross expansion of the human population is on our water and our air and our habitats, let alone our wildlife. There's many invasive plants. You never hear Obama and Biden talking about invasive alien plants taking over ecosystems. It's all climate change, climate change. And I'm really irritated at all politicians that say, when you ask them, "Well what is your environmental platform?" "Oh, I'm going to do something about climate change." And then they ignore every other major issue going on, because they think that that--. Well just say you're going to do--. They aren't going to do anything about it. But it's just like an easy, pat answer, and they don't have to think about it. "Oh, yeah. I'm going to do something about climate change." Oh, I should vote for you. And then they don't discuss any of the other major issues. And I've talked to Senator Kerry about it and other people. But the population thing's a huge thing.
[1:06:33] CK: Well does climate change not incorporate--?
PA: It does, but it shouldn't be your only focus. It should be one of many focuses. And I mean I have been working--. I work--. I've been to Antarctica thirty times. I spent two summers ago eight weeks up in the high Canadian Arctic and Ellesmere Island and Baffin Island. And we only had two polar bear mothers with one cub each in eight weeks of intense scouting by helicopter. The bridge of a Russian ice breaker I was one of the scientific lecturers on, we were up twenty-four hours a day, and we were being begged by the operators of the cruise line to find polar bears, because that's all they wanted to see and photograph polar bears. And we only had two mothers with cubs in this complete run from Siberia to Greenland over the Northwest Passage. We were the 101st ship ever to do it successfully. And complete circumnavigation of Baffin. Nearly complete circumnavigation of Ellesmere, on down the west coast to Greenland. There was only two polar bears. And they really are being hammered. Not good news up there.
[1:07:34] But our climates go north; they go south. The climate change thing is important, but it should not be at the exclusion of everything else, or the lack of mental energy into all the other problems facing the planet, from an eco--, you know, an ecosystem supporting things, supporting human life--.
CK: So in Concord, people--. It's getting crowded here. People want to live here. And people are pressing for open space. How does that-?
PA: It makes open space more expensive, but I mean we've had a real estate crash, not so much in Concord as some other towns. But there's a--. And I foresee a depopulating of the areas, the outer fringe of the suburbs furthest from public transportation. You can't give away houses out there any more. I mean it's sort of semi-Yuppie houses that they put way out in the woods in some town ten miles from the nearest transport and twenty, thirty miles from the nearest job. I mean they're totally unsustainable.
[1:08:25] We'll probably see a lot of these McMansions that are single family, Yuppies with five car garages and whatever, they'll probably be group homes. Remember that TV show, "Friends," where you have all these unrelated people living together? There's going to be a lot of that moving into the McMansions I think in the future, which is probably good, because there's so many single people. I mean I live alone. I can't afford it. And I known many other single family people who, they can't afford the mortgages anymore, especially if you don't have any equity left. And that's one of the things I do when I do my slideshows is I show a picture of vast ice field in Greenland, and I say, "This is what Concord, Massachusetts looked like 20,000 years ago. And the total value of all real estate then in Concord, Mass. under 2,000 feet of ice was zero, the same as it is today, now that we've all lost the equity in our homes." And I usually get a rise out of that.
[1:09:12] But it's not a space issue. The problem is if you go over to Spain, or France, or some of Europe, you've got a cluster of houses, either in the village, or you're not in the village, and then it's all farm fields that people commute out to when they have to plant, harvest, weed, or whatever. And then they come back into the village. So public transportation works in France. It works in Spain. Works in England. Doesn't work here. They keep saying, "Oh, we got to put more money into public transportation." But in Boston--. It's only seventeen percent of the jobs in Massachusetts are in Boston. Well, the other eighty-three percent you can't get there by public transportation. If you live in Concord, but your job's up in Burlington or down in Norwood or something like that, you don't need a train to Boston. The jobs are too spread out. And say you live in Townsend and you're teaching in Wayland, what are you going to do? Take a train into Boston, and then take another train out to Wayland, and then look for a taxi? There's no taxis in the suburbs. You can't get around.
CK: So why can't you create public transport?
PA: No, we got to have clusters of housing near the hubs of the railroad and the occasional bus areas, and not these two-acre zoning things of these McMansions out there. And all the people who live out in the woods, they hate the woods. They never go out in the woods. They just get in the SUV and back, drive down to some coffee shop or pizza joint. They have nothing to do with the woods. They have no feeling for it. It's just a place to dump your excess lawn cutting and brush cutting. You throw it out in the back forty someplace. But they're not in tune with the woods right now at all. But they like to have some House Beautiful kind of a thing, but it's unsustainable. But they'll all become group homes in the future I think, most of them. They're way too big. In fact it's interesting. You see a recent spike in--. The value of the little houses like mine is actually going up, and the value of the huge houses is going down, because the cost of fuel oil, and the heat, and the upkeep, and the gardening, and all this other stuff. I mean there's just--.
[1:11:05] And there has been a period of twenty years. They only houses that got built were McMansions. There's no Levittowns being built, because it just wasn't economically feasible, but that's got to be reversed. We've had a problem right here in the Town of Concord. Again we get back to the affordable housing clause. Affordable housing. They're trying to build some affordable housing units over near the prison, but near the railroad station, which is a good spot, in my part of town, West Concord. And this is affordable housing, but this is for the really poor people that only make something like $65,000 a year. I'm sixty-five. I've never made $65,000 a year. How the hell can you call that affordable? That ain't affordable. And then they've--. They're always putting up--. I'm fighting a battle in the Cambridge-Belmont area. This--. The last unprotected woodland in Greater Boston within ten miles of the city, and walkable from public transportation. Big forest we call the silver maple forest. And it's in the lowest part of Belmont. It's going to--. It has hundred-year floods every five years kind of place, and unstable soil. If we have an earthquake it's coming down. And they want to build 400 units of housing there when there's lots of vacant housing, right? There's not reason to build a house anymore. There's no pressure. There's pressure to fill up the empty houses and the foreclosed houses in many areas. And they want to build 400 units in the middle of a swamp, valuable woodland, surrounded by woods. And no way that would be allowed except for the stupid affordable housing laws.
[1:12:24] Well if you have some of your units affordable, then you don't have to worry about wetlands and environmental laws and regulations. It kills us. I mean they're putting 400 units up somewhere in Concord here. 400 units with a couple of token affordable units which you can't afford, overlooking a beautiful hemlock thing, a view like this--.
CK: Like what?
PA: Like hemlocks on the Assebet River here. It's about two miles, three miles upstream from there. And there's no public transportation. There's no bus. There's no train. There's no taxis. There's no way any of these people can get out of there, except by driving cars. So that means 800 vehicle trips more, zero public transportation. And yet we do have train stations, two of them here in Concord. If you go to build public housing or any affordable housing or big unit and you want to get away from the environmental regulations, because you have some token so called affordable units, you put it within walking distance of the train station. When you have no buses and no taxis in your town, you put it next to the, you know, walking distance of the train station, or you're not allowed to build it. But no, they're building them out in the wilderness where you have to have cars. And it's totally unsustainable.
[1:13:33] Would Thoreau have a car? I don't think so. He'd be bicycling. He'd be bicycling around.
CK: Is there a move toward bicycling here?
PA: Some. But the NIMBYs, the Not In My Back Yard people, have been doing their best to stop a bicycle trail that we have here. There's two bicycle, old rail beds here. One comes from Cambridge with public transportation, through Arlington, Lexington. Huge increase in property values in Arlington because of the bike trail. Gives you an option. You can bike to work. You bike down to the T-stop, lock your bike, take the train into Boston, come back. For a couple of bucks, no gasoline, you're all set. We--. That same bike trail stops in Bedford because the local naturalists say, "Oh, look at this rare turtle, the Blanding's turtle that walks across what would be the bike trail a couple of times a year to lay some eggs.
[1:14:24] Ay, endangered species. I mean it's too much protection for endangered species too. It's another thing that gets my goat. Most of the endangered species stuff that we have is now at the state level, state listed and stuff like that. So we got some turtle here that is pretty rare in Massachusetts. It's a relic from the glaciers or something like that. It's perfectly common out of Michigan and Wisconsin and Illinois and Indiana. There's tons of them out there. But it's endangered here. So why should we be spending millions of dollars to protect something that's sort of marginal edge of its range? Doesn't even really belong here, so to speak, when we could be doing something else? The rest of the money we're spending on endangered species are all these Great Plains things that aren't even native to Massachusetts that came east. And they only survive at like airports and artificially maintained grasslands, field sparrows, vesper sparrows, grasshopper sparrows, upland sandpipers, even meadowlarks, bobolinks. Probably none of them were here when the Pilgrims were here. They all flooded in from the Great Plains once we created the grasslands.
[1:15:22] Same as is happening in the Amazon today. As they clear cut various swaths of the Amazon it's all these grassland birds and second growth things that are filtering into what used to be virgin rainforests. Same thing that was happening here a couple years ago, a couple hundred years ago. The same thing's happening in Brazil today. Our most endangered bird in Mass. almost is the eastern meadowlark, which was in every town in Massachusetts in Thoreau's day with all the fields. Now it's only in like six towns. And very endangered and, as far as New England goes. And yet in Brazil it's the most rapidly increasing bird, with the greatest increase in range and numbers of any bird in Brazil is the one that is most disappearing from here.
CK: So should it be protected here, or not?
PA: With limited resources, I would rather protect things that are probably native here than to waste money protecting things that moved in here for a few hundred years from somewhere else and our natural vegetation and soils cannot support its habitat without man interference. I think that's mal-allocation of resources if there is such a word.
CK: Although the Endangered Species Act has been used to stop--.
PA: The dandelion's endangered at the north end of Ellesmere Island. The dandelion. You get up to a certain point. At the edge of the range of every flower, every butterfly, every bird, every mammal, every fish in the whole world--. You've got your ideal core habitat where it's very wonderful and there's plenty of them. But when you get to the edges of the habitat, where it's too wet, it's too dry, the soil's wrong, they're missing something, and it's struggling just to hang on. But if you draw a circle around the range of every species, you get to places where it's endangered. Therefore everything's endangered.
[1:17:04] CK: But the--.
PA: And if you start doing it at the state and local level, then you're wasting a hell of a lot of money protecting the edges of something where it's really not prime habitat to begin with, when you have scarce resources. If we had abundant resources, then maybe it makes sense, but I--. A lot of--. I mean if it's the last of its kind in the whole world, like the California condors, yeah, that deserves every buck we can give it. But to protect the dandelion up in Ellesmere Island, where it's just getting a little too cold for it to survive, I don't think that's a good use of resources, to preserve, protecting a meadowlark in some grassland out here if it's not even native. But it's just a separate issue. I mean there's a lot of money being spent on pretty marginal things.
We have something in Florida called the Everglades or snail kite. Super, super common in Argentina, Venezuela, Vera Cruz, Mexico, wherever, hence the relic population in Florida. Should we be spending millions of dollars here at the edge of its range? I don't know. And it's trash elsewhere.
CK: It has just become an avenue to protect land in some--. You know, Black Water Canyon in West Virginia, they're looking at the Northern Flying Squirrel. And it's not that that's--.
PA: It's common up here.
CK: ---species. Right.
PA: It's common up here.
CK: Right. But it's a way to protect—
PA: --some habitat.
CK: . . . .
PA: Well maybe we could clear cut a mountaintop in West Virginia, take out the coal and put up some birdfeeders for the flying squirrel. You know? Then we can suck them into the birdfeeder, and then everything'll be okay. No, we hear about your mountaintop removal down there in West Virginia a lot.
CK: You do?
[1:18:32] PA: Oh, yeah. Yeah. And habitat, because you do have a really unique bunch of things in West Virginia. Thoreau would make a trip here. He really would, to see the southern extension of the Canadian zoned forest, and all these little warblers, and flowers, and bogs on your mountaintops in West Virginia. It's a very, very wonderful place.
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