Back to Boreal

Celebration 2014 starts tomorrow.  Every two years, people gather from all around Alaska to celebrate Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian culture. Social media’s been thrumming with the festival’s preparation. I’m sad I won’t be there now that I live in Fairbanks, but I hope you’ll follow along as it gets underway.

I feel like coming back from hiatus never works well when you start off announcing you’re back from hiatus. Nevertheless, I return with an update, a brief update, but I will bring more topics of substance in the coming weeks.

I’m working at the UA Museum of the North in Fairbanks now. Back to Fairbanks, back to boreal, from rainy Juneau. I’ve been back here a little more than a year now. As digital media producer, I don’t get to go out into the forest quite as often as when I was a field assistant at the university, but there are still plenty of adventures to be had. I have a quick couple highlights for you then I’m off to work on another, longer post.

I’m working on a radioplay. PoLAR Voices is our new mystery-adventure podcast — episode 6 is out tomorrow. Our team’s been running all around the world (Helsinki! San Francisco! New York!) to gather sound for this multi-year project.

The museum is a partner in what’s called a climate change education partnership — but climate change education series just doesn’t quite encapsulate this new show. It’s part documentary of the people who live and work in the Arctic and the changes they face, part fictional story revolving around a small mystery that becomes something much greater. Again, a team effort: my supervisor Roger Topp writes it, and my officemate Hannah Foss illustrates, and I edit it. Roger and I also gather sound, and, well — if you know any of us, some of the voices in there might be a bit familiar. Excited to hear what you think, it’s also on iTunes.

We finished an exhibit. “Arctic Odyssey: Voyages of the R/V Sikuliaq” opened in May, and I’d recommend you check it out if you happen to be in Fairbanks. UAF’s shiny new research vessel Sikuliaq is traveling to icy Arctic waters over the next year, and the exhibit follows alongside it.

The exhibit includes a first-person look aboard the ship, several science-inspired games, oceanographic instruments, researcher interviews and historic footage of past university ships. It’s also only open for a year. I can’t quite fit it all into one sentence or one picture. Just, go check it out. To be clear, my part in this exhibit was quite small, and I admire the experience of those who worked around me. But still, it’s very special when you first experience something so big and complex form over the course of the year. I may be biased — but hey, I have written about the museum in similar light several times before. I love this job.

We pulled together a series of web video interviews with UAF researchers for the exhibit that explains more about working at sea in the Arctic.

And there’s also a time lapse of our team putting the exhibit up.

Oh! I’d talk more about the museum, but honestly, our Tumblr says it all, Theresa Bakker does a great job with it. Go see for yourself. Emily Graslie of The Brain Scoop recently reblogged us. Yeah, that was cool.

Well, I’m off and writing the next post — expect before next week is up. Until then, follow along on Twitter.

It’s good to be back. And I’m excited to hear what you’d like me to cover. What have you been up to over the last year? What adventures are in store this summer?

Sabbath at the Shrine, sea lions in the pews

The island of the Shrine of Saint Therese.

The island of the Shrine of Saint Therese.

Orcas guided me through elementary school. I dreamt of variations on a theme: friendships with orcas in unexpected places, such as a lake or a school swimming pool. Today, I watched that dream come to life — and swim away.

“The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky” by Ellen Meloy opens on the Colorado Plateau. The narrator is in her element – she knows not only every color to expect and when to expect it, but what scientific processes lead to each hue and shape. This is knowledge of a place borne of love, habit and obsession. She describes it as a mixture of sensory cues that create homesickness in their absence.

I understood this homesickness when I came upon Ben Huff’s photos of the Haul Road at the Alaska State Museum. My brain thinks “hills” when it sees the area north of Fairbanks, but after living in, studying and working in these hills, I know them. Or, at least, I know how their many parts fit together better than I understand the foreign mountains around me now. Huff described the Haul Road as horizontal, and Juneau as vertical, and the transition takes some getting used to.

I’ve been bitter toward Juneau and God’s timing because of an unshakeable mood since I moved here. Today, the second sunny day in a row after weeks of wind and rain and snow, was the perfect day to fix that. I wanted to see what others see in this rainy, lonely town.

Yesterday I started “Street Life” in a recent issue of the New Yorker. The late writer Joseph Mitchell seeks to know every street in New York. I have crisscrossed many streets in Downtown Juneau already, but the roads past Auke Bay remain untraveled. I headed north.

I ended up at the Shrine of St. Therese, a Catholic chapel atop a tiny tidal island.

Approaching the shrine.

Approaching the shrine.

An echo this side of the seascape.

An echo this side of the seascape.

The shrine was surrounded by familiar mosses, liverworts, squirrel middens and Christian art. The unfamiliar lay in the tidal zone, so down I climbed. A sign on the way in had warned me that we were in a mixing zone for treated cruise ship wastewater. I needed to avoid eating shellfish or even being in contact with the area. Well, I know better than to eat the shellfish in Juneau, but if sea life is expected to learn to thrive without heeding these warnings, I decided I could spend an afternoon here.

The rocks were covered first in yellow and white lichens, then in seaweed and shellfish. People filtered in and out of the lookout point above. I pulled out “Turquoise” and started reading, but presently the sea lions arrived.

I watched the sea lions until the passerby up at the shrine lookout started shouting. An orca — what I thought to be one, with that dorsal fin — breached once, twice, then swam away. I stopped fumbling with my phone’s camera. It is rare to face a dream, rarer still to catch it on tape.

I dropped “Turquoise” in a tide pool, so I fished it out and we basked in the sun. It was still cold enough that snot blocked my sense of smell and the light wind numbed my fingers.

Snowcapped mountains shone down on forested islets and the bay where I fancied a pod of orcas were hunting. I could see misty pillars as they rose to exhale.

Waves shimmered from there to here and dozens of crows effortlessly crossed the distance between my kin and me. The crows rested in cliffside trees surrounding the shrine.

Later they flew over me again, landing on the seaside boulders, cursing all the way. They ignored me and pecked at the seaweed and barnacles. One crow squeezed a writhing and glistening fish in its beak until something squirted into the sunlight. I no longer wonder which came first — McDonald’s wrappers and Cheetos or the corvid.

A preteen girl came with a big white hat and purple pants. The crows flew away before she arrived at their seaweed-slick rocks, but her approach sparked sea lion curiosity. They came closer, three sleek-yet-lutrine heads bobbing in tune with the waves. She was entranced, as I always was in my dreams and remain today on days like this.

Earlier today, I told my dad that Sabbath is easier for families — and much harder to enjoy when you are in a season of wanderlust. But on this rare sunny day in Juneau, the waves became a choir, the sea lions my brothers and the orca my pastor, teaching me to keep reaching toward a dream so distant yet closer than ever before.

The girl left, the tide came in and I climbed back into the woods, to the Shrine of St. Therese.

A tiny moss forest atop an old railing overlooks the ocean expanse.

A tiny moss forest atop an old railing overlooks the ocean expanse.

Alaskans appreciate algal alliances from afar

Sandy beach at low tide, covered in tempting shellfish crowding around the Treadwell Mine saltwater pumphouse. November 2012.

Sandy Beach panorama at low tide, covered in tempting shellfish crowding around the Treadwell Mine saltwater pumphouse. November 2012.

Juneau is a city of juxtaposition.  It’s enough to make me feel a little confined, now and then, but I see more art in this city every day. I lived in a building that’s made from parts of the old Douglas Bridge. The home is held up by the limbs of a gateway that straddled a channel, one foot on the mainland and the other on an island.

In Fairbanks, you can see what’s coming. The thunderstorm will start just as the workday ends. The temperature will drop to -40. Your car won’t start at least once this winter. The wildfire’s smoke plume billows a safe 60 miles away. You will bleed if you touch the floor in The Marlin.

Juneau uses every available square inch to surprise visitors. Not only do mountains leap from the water, but they leap 4,000 feet over a dizzying short distance. The tide seeps in until wetlands become open water. Wee beasties in the ocean meet with shellfish and contaminate them with an inconspicuous, but not inconsequential, toxin.

That last point isn’t convenient for visitors to Juneau. After all, juxtaposition can be deadly, too.

Have you heard about paralytic shellfish poisoning? I hadn’t. Thankfully, I didn’t experience it, either — I just told a bookstore employee that I’d gazed at the mussels on Sandy Beach. I was looking at a book about harvesting your own seafood. He stopped me short: Juneau’s beaches aren’t the place to forage. If I listened to that free-food instinct, I could get sick, he said. Very sick.

Paralytic shellfish poisoning stems from something called saxitoxin. Saxitoxin is found in some red algae — plant-like organisms that don’t quite resemble algae at all. Red algae can also tint the sea to look like fluorescent blood.

What happens if shellsfish slurp up saxitoxin? They end up fine, but if you eat them, first your lips tingle. Your arms go numb, you can’t move your legs. You feel like you’re floating. In a couple hours, your chest freezes up and you can’t breathe. If the poisoning gets to this point, you die — that could take a couple of hours, or rarely, days.

There’s no treatment, other than having hospital staff help you purge the toxin from your system.

In “Hunting the Mighty Cockle,” Alaska magazine suggested that cockles are safe to harvest in Juneau in late fall and winter, when temperatures are too cold for algae to grow. This isn’t true, although commercial shellfish are safe.

Usually, in Juneau, you can appreciate the beauty of juxtaposition. It’s easy to notice when the temperatures hopscotch around freezing, when your plane flies next to a mountain before landing or when a bear crosses a road. There’s no way for the average person to know when shellfish has bumped up against an alga that makes saxitoxin.

I’ve learned to appreciate the crunch of shells under my boots, a guilty pleasure safe from any chastising bookstore employees.

Shell’s uninhabited island: Sitkalidak weathers Alaska’s best and worst of times

New Year’s Eve 2012, a Shell Oil drilling rig crashed off the shore of an uninhabited island near Kodiak. The landing site lit up on the media radar. The actual setting of the wreck was overshadowed by the fears, aspirations and politics surrounding the drilling rig.

To peer into the background of these images, past the drilling rig and the news updates, “uninhabited” does not do the island justice — Sitkalidak Island has played its part in history. The island retired from public eye nearly 50 years ago, but has weathered every major boom and bust in Alaska for more than 200 years. A massacre on its shores sounded the beginning of Russian America. Forgotten Siberian cattle waved in an age of agriculture for American Alaska. The 1964 earthquake crippled that blossoming industry, and Sitkalidak fell silent until last week.

A century ago, Sitkalidak was a promising new venture for Americans, but misfortune dogged the island constantly. Today, Sitkalidak is once again a stage where entrepreneurial stubbornness battles wild Southern Alaska’s tenacity.

The Kulluk off the coast of Sitkalidak, photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis, via U.S. Coast Guard

The Kulluk off the coast of Sitkalidak, photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis, via U.S. Coast Guard

Shell’s drill rig Kulluk left Seattle this summer to explore the Arctic. The season was rife with setbacks. After some preliminary work at a prospective well, the Kulluk departed the Arctic Ocean for Seattle, according to the Alaska Dispatch.

The tugboat Aiviq — Inupiaq for “walrus” — was taking the Kulluk to Seattle when the tug’s engines failed. Even with the aid of another tugboat, the tow lines kept losing their grip, and crews eventually let the rig bob away into the storm. Kulluk found its way to Sitkalidak Island on New Year’s Eve. The storm died down and crews rushed to its side. The Coast Guard and the world are monitoring its hull for any signs of tear, for it carries nearly 150,000 gallons of fuel.

This is not the first graveyard on Sitkalidak. But let’s not glance so far back just yet — we’ll pause briefly in the 20th century. I retell much of this tale using John Sherman Long’s “McCord of Alaska: Statesman for the Last Frontier.”

Jack McCord had reindeer on his mind when he bumped into a fisherman in Anchorage. It was 1924, and McCord had just returned from a meeting with President Calvin Coolidge in Washington. He convinced the president to support reindeer herding along  the railroad backbone  of Alaska. He also suggested using the Aleutians for fur farming. Luckily for both the fisherman and McCord, the statesman wasn’t blind to other opportunities.

The fisherman said he just returned from voyaging around Kodiak Island, to the south. Twice he’d stopped at nearby islands for water, and saw — of all things — cattle.

McCord jumped on the fisherman’s boat and they set sail for Sitkalidak and Chirikof islands.

Bluetop covered the pastures of mountainous, 120-square-mile Sitkalidak. The land also offered redtop, beach rye and saltwater sedge for forage. The area boasted longer growing seasons and milder winters than other parts of the Last Frontier.

That didn’t explain how the livestock got there.

Livestock on Kodiak Island in 1972, via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Digital Library

Livestock on Kodiak Island in 1972, via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Digital Library

In the 1700s, Russian fur traders stormed through the Aleutians toward Southern Alaska, intent on laying claim to the frontier. They fought those who resisted, even though law forbade them to kill Alaska Natives except in cases of self defense. Sometimes, the Alaskans won and destroyed a Russian trading ship. But they were losing ground, and Russian Alaska was on the horizon.

In 1784, Russian trader Grigori Shelikhov sent 130 men and cannons to Refuge Rock, a tiny sanctuary hugging Sitkalidak’s shore. About 2,000 of Kodiak’s Alutiiq villagers retreated to that traditional refuge, but Shelikhov’s men found a secret route onto the islet. Negotiations failed.

The two sides fought, and hundreds of villagers died — many throwing themselves off the island’s cliffs. By the next summer, according to one Alutiiq account, the stench of death overwhelmed the air around the rock.

Fox trapper's bounty on Umnak Island, unknown date, via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Digital Library.

Fox trapper’s bounty on Umnak Island, unknown date, via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Digital Library.

The atmosphere changed in Alaska. Russians wanted to ranch, to build more than trappers’ cabins.

Shelikov built Russia’s second settlement in Alaska by the Sitkalidak Strait, at Three Saint’s Bay on Kodiak Island. They brought cattle from Siberia, but their cattle turned hardy and produced little meat and milk. The settlers started importing their meals.

Eventually, the fur trade tapered off when sea otters of the area were wiped out.

Ranching and settlement never really took off. Less than a thousand Russians were in Alaska at any given time.

The United States bought Alaska, and with it Sitkalidak, in 1867.

As McCord discovered, the Siberian cattle survived. Surveyors at the time discovered the grasses made cattle “fat as seals” and livestock learned to hide in ravines to protect themselves from the elements. A few of Russia’s sheep also survived.

A brown bear on Kodiak Island, via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Digital Library

A brown bear on Kodiak Island, via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Digital Library

Before McCord settled on Sitkalidak, the Department of Agriculture bred both sheep and Scottish Galloway cattle at an experimental station on Kodiak.

Lush Kodiak was no Garden of Eden, though — not while the bears were there. Further south, ranchers worried only about coyotes.  On Kodiak, “a single bear has been known to kill or maim a dozen cattle in one night.”

A volcanic eruption in 1912 destroyed much of the Department of Agriculture’s work. The government abandoned the station, and soon McCord came to revive Sitkalidak. He bought the islands’ cattle and organized two bills for Congress — the first allowed fur farming in the Aleutian islands, the second opened some public lands in the area to livestock. By 1927, both bills passed. Coolidge sent him to Chirikof and Sitkalidak, and asked him to survey the Aleutian Chain to Attu for opportunities to expand.

McCord set to work. His glamorous vision for Southern Alaska agriculture drove away any shadows past and present, so that Americans saw only promise and opportunity.

His efforts paid off. In 1953, The Toledo Blade boasted “If you want to raise cattle without being fenced in, come to Alaska.”

Americans found the Alaska meat “very tender and delicate.”  The U.S.D.A.’s Agricultural Research Service (then the Agricultural Research Administration) suggested supplementing or replacing the native grasses with clover and bromegrass. The cattle survived well enough on their own, so the native vegetation stayed.

McCord’s exuberance in Washington won him sheep from Wyoming, and he bred new cattle with the surviving Galloways to create a breed that fended well in the harsh climate. He sold his mutton and beef in Alaska, and found a world market for his fox pelts. Better yet, Sitkalidak did not have Kodiak brown bears at the time.

In the ’30s, he ventured onward to Chirikof Island, once the site of a Russian prison. He discovered gold and platinum. Remote Chirikof provided more stories of woe than success, though. Storms marooned McCord’s wife and dog on the island, leaving them at the whim of wild and aggressive cattle for two weeks. The shadow of the Great Depression soured the whole operation.

McCord left to explore opportunities in Mainland Alaska. He returned to Southern Alaska at a time when Palmer and Anchorage were booming and Matanuska agricultural operations fluorished. Feisty Chirikof remained a problem child, stranding McCord and his crew for weeks, until they were near death.

Sitkalidak, on the other hand, had done well in his absense. As World War II began overseas, the Navy looked for a way to feed soldiers on Kodiak, and Sitkalidak outshone its unruly sibling as a candidate.  McCord planned to relocate the Chirikof cattle, but his men failed to coerce the herd onto a ship, and he abandoned the prison island to focus on Sitkalidak.

He eventually returned and successfully ran a slaughterhouse out of Chirikof, but by 1949 he had little time to spend on the project.

McCord returned to warmer climates to give voice to Alaskan interests. He analyzed the state’s potential for everything from developing the resources of the Brooks Range to eliminating brown bear protections on Kodiak. He left Sitkalidak to Ira “Rocky” Rockwell.

Rockwell’s foreman slept through the island’s next big disaster. The 1964 earthquake produced tidal waves that “swept away the livestock, buildings, and equipment,” according to “McCord of Alaska.” Rockwell, on Kodiak at the time, had a heart attack when he surveyed the damage.

Deserted, Sitkalidak became uninhabited, save for the brown bears that finally made their way across the narrow strait.

Nearly 50 years later, a towboat line snapped, and a metal top raced across the ocean until it grounded, one beach over from where Russians massacred the Alutiiq more than two centuries earlier.

And so, the island became that brown, rocky backdrop to a national story — uninhabited, save for its ghosts.

Additionally: Alaska Media Lab has a nice rundown of the Kulluk event as it unfolds on Twitter.

Southeast Serenade: A weary intern learns to explore again

A prison emerges from the unknown. Just kidding, I’ll talk about this mysterious guy soon.

The journey to Juneau may as well have been a voyage to another galaxy, for all I could see from the ferry windows. They yielded pitch black scenery whenever I sought clues about my new home. This post-graduation foray into the world of interning should have felt liberating from the onset, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I might be heading to Alcatraz.

That caged feeling Gorilla glued itself to the back of my mind as I unpacked. When I felt confident enough to leave my room, the highway into town felt like little more than a capillary between civilizations, stretching across an overpowering expanse of mountains and seawater. Historic buildings and suburbs alike seemed out of place, too structured to withstand the chaos of winter winds and avalanches.

I scampered from assignment to assignment with the tense survivalism of an exile. I came here to learn and leave.

Just one problem, a vestigial feeling from Fairbanks — I can only find freedom in the forest. Before long, my muscles itched with restlessness. I stumbled to a nearby trailhead. There, I found the mountains and ocean weren’t jail bars, they were gateways. I meandered through the forest, surrounded by unfamiliar and familiar plants alike, the dusk light filtering through the trees in such a way I hadn’t seen since my autumn mornings on the Tanana.

Best thing — it’s above freezing during the day, even in November, yet here I can quell my spheksophobia, for the wasps are long gone for the season. A welcome reprieve from the sliver of time between wasp season and ice fog in Fairbanks.

I came to Juneau expecting to see at least one great example of transition other than the extended autumn. Mendenhall Glacier, I knew, shows the natural sequence from glacier to forest. I had no idea that a 15 minute drive from KTOO could land me alongside the forest’s reclamation of decaying ruins.

And yet, I found myself trekking around Sandy Beach and the ruins of Treadwell Mine this last week. On Wednesday I’ll talk more about that (can’t help myself) treasure trove of history. Until then, any suggestions on where to hike in Juneau?

Closing in on a month in Southeast Alaska

I held my microphone up to Republicans and Democrats minutes after Romney’s concession speech. Four years ago, I finished up my first workday in a university laboratory. How much our lives change in four years, even though it seems the gap between elections is so slim. Case in point: last night marked just three weeks at my internship with KTOO.

I left Election Central at the Baranoff Hotel to spend my first presidential election in a newsroom. There was pizza, yes, but also new faces – the newsroom was packed with livebloggers and reporters. I worked from the intern desk in the digital services room, close to my editor-in-chief turned new-media-producer and roommate, Heather Bryant.

It has been a busy three weeks in Juneau. I’ve stepped out of my science comfort zone to work with education, breaking news, election coverage, and the military. Even between these categories, there is so much overlap, and science finds its way into so much of my work.

The stories I’ve worked on here vary from a couple soundbites for a reporter to packages I produced, from the Coast Guard to 4-H, from salmon runs to student surveys.

I’m still shoving my hands into this big batch of free time and trying to knead it into a schedule that can tell me where my internship gives way to my other projects, where work can become play. Here’s what I’ve been working on in the mean time:

Salmon fill Auke Creek with shorter, earlier runs
Horse Sense: New 4-H group connects kids and horses
New research examines why Alaska students drop out of school
Coast Guard’s only active icebreaker stops in Juneau

This weekend I’ll talk a little more about the very different ecosystem here in Juneau – until then, I’m going to enjoy jumping in puddles in mid-November.

The Truth will Out: Radiolab withdraws from ‘Yellow Rain,’ sources continue the narrative

Truth, fact, reality — whichever way you cut it, accuracy is necessary to both journalism and science. Yet, as Radiolab listeners learned this week, even science journalists can gloss over an important part of a story.

Eng Yang lived in a Laos village in 1975. Yang and other Hmong refugees fled to the jungle when Viet Cong and Pathet Lao targeted them after the U.S. withdrew from the region. They encountered a substance they called yellow rain that sickened and killed many. The U.S. treated this as a possible chemical weapon. Some scientists called the yellow rain bee feces, after bees swarm out when waking up from hibernation. On Sept. 24, Radiolab picked up the story from here, with translation from Eng Yang’s niece (Note: The original podcast has been modified).

After Radiolab spoke with CIA and scientists who analyzed the yellow rain, the show turns back to Eng Yang — reintroduced as “the Hmong guy.” Robert Krulwich asked if Eng Yang knew whether there was ever yellow rain without a plane, or whether anyone ever saw planes drop the yellow rain. Eng Yang replied, through his niece, that they did not wait to find out, planes also usually meant bombs. The next part of Krulwich’s reply is no longer in the podcast.

“As far as I can tell, your uncle didn’t see the bee pollen fall, your uncle didn’t see a plane. All of this is hearsay.”

The translator, Eng Yang’s niece, entered the story at the end of the segment. Here is an excerpt of her on-tape response:

“Everybody knows that chemical warfare was being used. How do you create bombs if not with chemicals? We can play the semantics game. We can. But I am not interested. My uncle is not interested. We have lost too much heart, and too many people, in the process.”

Her voice cracks as she speaks, and she says the interview is over. After her plea, her voice went silent. That silence stretched for 10 seconds before Jad Abumrad and Krulwich continue the show. It has been a month since we’ve heard from the translator.

Her name is Kao Kalia Yang, and now Radiolab listeners can read her response.

Mountains in Laos. Photo by Emad Ghazipura, emadman on Flickr.

Elika Roohi, the editor-in-chief of The Sun Star (my old campus paper), asked me to write about my thoughts on Yang’s response. This is an Alaska science blog, but, as Alaskans know, the intersection of science and culture is a foggy frontier.

During this time of upheaval in the Arctic, traditional knowledge has become essential to understanding the past. Agency decisions about subsistence and climate change adaptation shape many lives in Alaska. The people most affected by these decisions sometimes, but not always, have a say. Where does traditional knowledge and local livelihood belong in the data-driven scientific world? When does it leave the realm of science and transform into politics?

The best way to explore this unknown is to start talking.

Full disclosure: I applied for an internship at Radiolab earlier this year. I am happy I found myself in Juneau instead of New York City – but working for Radiolab would have been the one reason I’d move to New York on a whim. I love Radiolab. Robert Krulwich is my hero.

Radiolab listeners and visitors haven’t shut the book on the “Yellow Rain” discussion. Screenshot of the Radiolab homepage on Oct. 24 at 10:15a.m.

I am a 23-year-old who just graduated from an Alaska university with a science degree. I am not qualified to talk about the Hmong people, social justice or the kinds of editorial decisions WNYC makes.

Then again, I’m no scientist, but I love Alaska, I love science, so I write about it here. I strive to tell true stories. As with my previous posts, I care for this story. Let’s trek on and explore what happened after the podcast aired.

Radiolab immediately reeled from the backlash about this episode. The episode itself portrayed this segment as being clearly heartwrenching to Radiolab staff.

Abumrad wrote an addendum to the episode, and Krulwich followed soon after. They said they were troubled by the interview and apologized for their tone when dealing with a victim of genocide. They argued that ultimately they pursued truth, and tried to stick to the framework of the story. Here’s Abumrad:

The point of the story — if the story can be said to have a point — is that these kinds of forensic or scientific investigations into the truth of a situation invariably end up being myopic.

In her response, Kao Kalia Yang questions this pursuit of truth. Radiolab staff did not mention that her uncle gave examples of pertinent scientific evidence, nor did they explain the breadth of indigenous knowledge on local bee populations. Her response comes a few weeks after Radiolab went silent on the matter. The show has since returned to producing podcasts and blog posts about the world’s many quirks and curiosities.

Kao Kalia Yang now lives in Minnesota. She writes about the Hmong community. She writes, because as a child she refused to speak in public and other children laughed at her when she tried to speak. Despite that, this was not her first time on the radio.

Minnesota Public Radio jumped in after the story aired. Here’s MPR’s Bob Collins,

“Finally, there’s an important lesson in this controversy for journalists: if you’re not sure what the point of a story is, you’re not ready to tell it.”

Would Eng Yang have guided Krulwich through that difficult path? Is it the source who guides reporter, who then guides the audience back as best he can while picking up some new landmarks along the way?

Radiolab tried to find a direction to focus the story. Journalism is, after all, about facing every story like it’s the Hydra — if reporters aren’t careful about how they tackle a piece, dozens of story possibilities will overwhelm them. If reporters don’t know when to cauterize the story, when to end it, the hours upon hours of work will never make it past the editing room.

Elika, editor-in-chief that she is, reminded me why journalists, and not sources, must decide what goes into these programs. She was torn — “there are some things Radiolab completely messed up on,” she said. She then pointed out the journalist’s, Radiolab’s, perspective:

“There are always going to be sources that are upset with how they come across in the news. It’s not media’s job to cater to their feelings, although tact is a nice thing to practice.”

So Radiolab created a show on truth, the staff was steadfast in sticking to the story in pursuit of that truth, yet the episode started a ripple through the community that Radiolab turned on blinders to necessary facts. To listeners, the podcast somehow became what the episode was battling: resistance to truth.

It’s the journalist’s job to reach out to the community — like some scientists and policy makers now reach out to traditional knowledge as accurate historical data. Journalists are trained to tell accurate and precise stories. Sources know best when they are uncomfortable — when they are being shoved around. It’s the journalist’s job to know that the source feels this way.

I took a class on investigative reporting from Willy Stern in January. He told us that, even in matters as dire as Watergate, you need to know your source. There is a difference in interviewing style between the elderly aunt and the smooth politician, even if the story is the same. Where Kao Kalia Yang and Eng Yang were on this scale, I don’t know. Radiolab learned a lot about where reporters should have placed the Hmong author and refugee not during the interview, but after seeing how its audience reacted.

By then, their story had already aired. But the truth is not out.

This is where the trail becomes too difficult for me to hike, my friends.

Now, to reach out to those who are qualified.

I found out about this response from Deborah Blum, who often intertwines chemistry and society in her blog Elemental. Ms. Blum, could you please write about the science of yellow rain? Yang mentioned several studies. This yellow rain could, after all, be a type of poison – and poisons are your specialty.

On the Media, Radiolab pursued truth in this segment. Journalistic and scientific tools — Radiolab’s specialties — intersect in the pursuit of truth. If anyone had an interest in telling a story about facts, it would be Radiolab. Journalism is about finding truth, but sources also deserve some degree of respect and understanding. What went wrong here?

And finally, Radiolab. Mr. Abumrad, Mr. Krulwich, Mr. Walters. You have done such wonderful jobs of explaining why you took your approach. Now, please, explain what happened — not the why, but the what and the how. Did you know about the cultural significance of bees to Eng Yang? Was there more to the scientific narrative than what made it into your show?

Author Kao Kalia Yang has now entered the discussion about her and her uncle. Please, if you can,  Ms. Yang, keep talking with us.

For further reading on the yellow rain/chemical weapon controversy, see here. For a great post further opening the discussion of Radiolab’s ethics in airing this piece, see here.

I also want to hear your input. Did you hear the episode? What did you think? How do you feel about the fact that it is under so much discussion a month after it aired?

Edit: Radiolab responds to Minnesota Public Radio and Kao Kalia Yang. Also, public radio newspaper Current covers more of Radiolab’s side of the story.

Let’s stitch the boreal forest to the rest of Alaska

Kluane Lake outside of Destruction Bay, YT. Oct. 11, 2012.

Eight days ago, I packed up my cabin, bid adieu to my outhouse, shrugged off whispers of snow, jumped in my car and drove. Six-hundred-forty miles and a ferry ride later, I now live in Juneau and intern for KTOO News.

I miss working for the Forest Soils Lab. I miss sloughing my petrifying fear of wasps to trek into the woods every day. I miss the rise and fall of the river with the seasons. I’m not going to miss this blog, because I’m not leaving it behind like my lovely cabin.

I want to get to know this new place, too, so Boreal Bites is expanding. Let’s smoosh the temperate rainforest into the boreal forest. Heck, let’s throw in the tundra, and the Aleutians and all of Alaska. I’m in a new stage of life, and it’s time for the blog to grow, too. This will henceforth be a blog about Alaska science, science in Alaska culture, and everyday curiosities in the Far North.

Where should we go first?

My trusty steed in front of  Sheep Mountain outside Destruction Bay, Yt. Oct. 11, 2012.

Lungless lampreys link air-breathers to their ancestors

A fish-like creature coughed and unveiled a key secret about breathing.

Today, University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers escaped the new snow and ice to head to New Orleans for the annual Society of Neuroscience meeting. Their research today centers around a cough about 9 seconds into this video

That shows a lamprey larva ventilate normally through its gills, then coughing. You see, lampreys don’t breathe like we do. They don’t breathe air, and they don’t have lungs. But they are sensitive to carbon dioxide in a way that reminds UAF researchers Michael Harris and Barbara Taylor of amphibian breathing patterns. The nervous system responds similarly in both lamprey coughs and a part of breathing called a rhythm generator. This rhythm generator makes many animals sensitive to carbon dioxide and, Harris and Taylor say, evolved before lungs.

Lampreys don’t have lungs, but they are on the same path vertebrates took to start breathing. Eventually, vertebrates learned how to take in oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide. When lampreys encounter carbon dioxide, they cough.

Lampreys in Alaska can grow up two different ways — some are like salmon, living in salt water until spawning in fresh water, and some hang around fresh water their entire lives. Like salmon, they bring nutrients from the sea to land ecosystems. They start out as little ammocoetes — that larva in the video. These ammocoetes filter muddy water through their bodies and store the bits of food they come across. As adults they grow a nasty set of teeth that, if parasitic, they can use to suck blood from a host like a leech. The fresh water lampreys usually aren’t parasitic, and they don’t eat — they rely on the resources they gathered as youth.

I just arrived in Juneau to intern for KTOO. More on that later this week.

Also, speaking of UAF science: congratulations, R/V Sikuliaq, on your successful launch! I created a Storify of social and news media reactions to the launch. What do you want to know about the Sikuliaq?

Pursuing the unexpected: A challenge to go beyond the color walk

Pink fireweed in an old burn off the Tanana River. Genetic anamoly, or expression of individuality? July 31, 2012.

I found yellow! At an old burn off the Tanana River. July 2012.

The place outside your house, or down the road, or across the ocean, is full of things you’ve never seen or noticed before.

How do you seek the unknown?

Radiolab recently featured a post on color walks. Color walks are based on the idea that you notice more when you look for all things that are blue, or red, to the exclusion of other distractions.

This is a great starting point for conquering a pandemic my botany teacher warned me about — “plant blindness.”

It’s hard to see a forest for the trees when the trees mean nothing to you. A forest, on the other hand, is a major geographic feature — an impediment or a frontier. A forest on the horizon forces you to find some answers. Are you trying to get to the other side? How will you? How long will it take?

After taking that botany class, the forest changed from a crowd to a conglomerate of friends. I now stop to greet each kind of plant.

What is with this bluebell? July 2012, in the Bonanza Creek LTER.

Still, that’s just a species — we don’t greet humanity as a crowd, usually. But as I get to know each species, the individuality of each plant shines through. Here is a rose bush that’s taller than me. There is an aspen stressed by drought. Over there is a fireweed with cherry-blossom-pink flowers.

You can seek the unexpected, too, if you know the forest well enough. It’s like when you return to your home town after several years, and the first thing you notice isn’t the airport, the park or the church you grew up next to — it’s that new department store. You know what belongs, so your brain puts a spotlight on what doesn’t belong. I find myself asking questions like “Why is that bird vetch here?” “I’ve never seen that mushroom here before.” “Really? Alaska has woodchucks?”

Back to the color walk, and we’ll see how that exercise ties into the boreal forest.

Imagine you weren’t looking for red, yellow, blue or green. Imagine you weren’t even looking for plant species. Imagine you got to the heart of this exercise – blindness of the unknown. What would that look like? Is that plant a fireweed, or because it is pink, is it a different plant entirely?

This exercise takes the focus off your own abilities — encouraging though color walks are — and places the focus on the forest. What does the forest have to teach you? All it takes is the humility to say “I don’t know what this is.”

Raise your hand if you know what this is. Would you glance over it if you didn’t know? I could tell you, but let’s make this an exercise in using Google to figure out what you see outdoors (or you can scroll to the bottom of the post)

Or don’t. Maybe you just need the geographic feature.

If all you see is forest, there isn’t much you can do but drive through it.

(Third picture from the top is a shy, fertile, spore-producing moonwort.)