Monday, October 16, 2006

Richard Nelson and Moose in Alaska on NPR

I just listened to this super piece on NPR by Richard Nelson about moose in Alaska.  I was on a bagels run so I missed the beginning.  But I stayed in the car for about 5 minutes after I got home so I could hear the end of it.  It was a classic NPR moment: I was transported by radio from our driveway in New England to someplace in Alaska.

It was early.  The sun was just rising.  I smelled the cool, damp, autumn morning, looked out of the car windows at the brilliant orange, red and yellow foliage on our street, the green grass, the white wooden houses and baby blue sky, whips of cumulus and cirrus clouds near the horizon.  I was just taken in.  In the background I could hear the sounds of the moose as it rutted in the brush somewhere near Denali.  He was rubbing the velvet from his 12-point antlers weighing perhaps 80 pounds and spanning six feet.  I could even hear him breathing! As I listened, I suddenly become aware that I had somehow conjured a vivid “Alaskan” landscape in my mind to accompany the audio track and the narrative: a composite of our children’s camp in New Hampshire, a friend’s cabin in Maine, a pristine lake in the Oregon Cascades and movies, television and picture books of Alaska.  In the foreground I could hear Nelson’s excited voice, somewhat hushed and sometimes out of breath as he explained how the moose would polish those antlers to a fine shine and then use them to intimidate and push other bulls around.

I couldn’t turn it off.  I had to hear how it all turned out…

The lesson in basic moose Biology was fabulous.  Not at all contrived or forced, it just seemed to be part of the narrative.  We learned about its habitat, diet, anatomy and behavior.  The picture in my mind just kept morphing with each new piece of information.  Their winter coat is so thick they survive temperatures as low as -60F.  The moose Nelson was watching weighed 1,800 pounds!  He was almost 8 feet tall at the shoulders!

Can you imagine?  I could.  But then I could hear him breathing!  This was radio at its best.  The presence of the actors in my car was palpable.

But the narrative intellectually engaged me on another level as Nelson effortlessly integrated the Natural History of the moose.  I did not know, for example, that moose were here in North America tens or hundreds of thousand years ago, sharing their habitat with saber tooth cats and wooly mammoths.  Apparently they came across the land bridge from Asia.  (But I’m not sure exactly when this was; it seems like it must have been prior to the Pleistocene, the most recent period of continental glaciation ending 10,000 years ago).  They lived in the boreal forest from Alaska to Maine with wolves, bear and, of course, people.  I loved the way that people were part of that landscape too.  Nelson, an anthropologist, explained that native people and modern Alaskans know how to use their knowledge of behavior and anatomy to hunt and use every bit of these large game animals.  Did you know that you can get up to 700 pounds of meat from a single animal?  And there is such a dish as moose head soup?  One tribe where he has studied had eight distinct terms for moose based on gender, age and familial groupings.

Another aspect of the piece I found so compelling was the personality of Richard Nelson himself and the sense of place he projected.  Just the way he pronounced the Native American names for moose felt authentic although I am not sure why.  Perhaps it is the way he seems to live in this environment of moose, bear, wolves and Native Americans in addition to studying it.  The description of the moose’s long head, bulbous nose, oversized upper lip and the “bell” in his neck were decidedly non-technical , even loving.  He let’s his passion through.

I loved that it was not alarmist or preachy.  Of course it helps that the moose are not endangered:  there are perhaps one million of them in North America, as many as there were when Europeans first arrived.  And the value of having the moose or even knowing about them was not reduced to some “marketing benefits” for “traction” in the Lower Forty-eight.  It was what it was: Nelson’s interest in the animals and their context, his respect, was sufficient.


But I still want to ask my question:  How do we know all this? For example, who is Richard Nelson and how does he know eight words for moose?  How did he learn all of this cool stuff?  How many other words does he know?   How did he learn this language?  It’s not offered in my children’s high school, you know?  Can anybody learn languages like this?

How do we know there are one million moose in North America?  Does someone count them?  How do we know that was their population when Europeans first arrived?  Are moose returning to suburbs in many of the Northern United States along with wild turkeys, coyotes, and bear?

I was also curious about the origins of the moose.  It seems logical that they are related to deer and elk, but how do we know that they are more ancient?  What does this even mean?  And if drift is constant, how do we know what they looked like then?  Why would deer and elk evolve in modern time and the moose stay the same?  How can we be sure?

I wish there were resources I could find on the web that answered some of these questions although I do not think I would have added a thing to the original piece.  It was absolutely perfect.  It was a marvelous use of radio, conveying the presence of both Nelson and the bull moose beautifully.  It was informative.  It was compassionate, engaging listeners emotionally without becoming sentimental. But just imagine how we could use additional context about this story to make it even richer and to integrate it with other, perhaps less compelling materials on Natural History, Biology, Natural History, Anthropology and the management of natural resources.  

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