A Tell Me More podcast shares stories about choosing what’s worth holding on to, from Dad’s books to old home movies to endangered animals
Sometimes we don’t even know why, but we hold onto things. We’re not talking about bad relationships or lousy jobs, but the actual stuff that takes up space. How do you decide what’s worth keeping and what you would be happier getting out of your life?
In this episode, we get advice from a home organizer on how to pare down and from an archivist who knows something about what’s worth keeping for the next generation.
Even if you decide you want to donate your stuff, we learn that it’s not always easy to find the right home for it, especially if it’s a 30-ton book collection you inherited from your father.
A recycling expert reminds us that we’re running out places to put the things we do throw away. We also hear from a computing expert who gauges the limits of trying to store everything in the cloud.
Keeping something may take a special effort, like the veterinary group that is intentionally holding onto the DNA of goats and other farm animals to preserve biodiversity in the future.
But in the end, you can’t always predict what will turn out to have been worth keeping—like an old home movie, forgotten in a closet, that ended up being a precious piece of history.
Peter Levine is associate dean of academic affairs and Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. His father, Joseph Levine, was a distinguished professor of history at Syracuse University. Thanks to generous contributions from friends, family, and colleagues, Levine was able to hire a professional moving company to pack up the 30 tons of books and send them to their new home. Read more about his experience on Tufts Now.
Dan Santamaria is university archivist and director of Digital Collections and Archives at Tufts University. He has worked in archives for 20 years at Tufts, Princeton, the University of Michigan, and the New York Public Library. Tufts Digital Collections and Archives (DCA) is the archives and manuscript repository of Tufts University and is open to the public. DCA’s team of professional archivists provides stewardship for over 700 archives and manuscript collections as well as archives, record keeping, and digital preservation advice to the entire Tufts community. Read more about archival work at Tufts on the DCA website.
Karen Kramer, A70, a licensed clinical social worker, spent 20 years in private practice as a psychotherapist before changing careers to become a professional organizer. Her business, Space to Breathe, is based on the idea that simplifying your home and office is a liberating, life-enhancing experience. Her website offers free advice on organizing and paring down everything from paper to books to digital files, always with an eye to being eco-friendly. It also has inspirational sayings, including: “If you have to dust it, you better love it.”
Kaitlyn Reed is the recycling and waste reduction coordinator in Tufts University’s Office of Sustainability. A graduate of Appalachian State University, she studied sustainable development and how society impacts its environment. Prior to coming to Tufts, she worked for the nonprofit Clean Ocean Access, where she created programs for commercial businesses and schools to implement sustainable waste management practices. She knows so much about recycling that we couldn’t help asking her a million questions about it. Check out everything she had to say in our extended interview.
Mark Hempstead, E03, is an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering as well as an associate professor of computer science in the School of Engineering. His research group investigates methods to increase energy efficiency across the boundaries of circuits, architecture, and systems. When he’s not explaining the cloud, he’s doing nifty things like figuring out how to avoid hotspots on computer microprocessors.
Glenn Kurtz, A84, is the author of Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film, which was selected as a “Best Book of 2014” by the New Yorker, the Boston Globe, and National Public Radio. A documentary based on the book, Three Minutes: A Lengthening, premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 2021. His grandfather’s film is archived at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
David Matsas is the interim chair of environmental and population health at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. An expert in large animal reproductive health, he has been a key part of the school’s collaboration with Swiss Village Farm (SVF) Foundation in Newport, Rhode Island. Together, they recently completed the SVF Biodiversity Preservation Project, a 20-year endeavor of collecting and cryopreserving more than 100,000 samples of semen, embryos, blood, and somatic cells from over 1,100 animals, across 36 breeds, including cattle, goats, and sheep. And in another buoy to biodiversity, the foundation made a $3.5 million gift earlier this month to create an endowed professorship in applied reproduction medicine at the school.
Anna Miller: Sometimes we don’t even know why, but we hold onto things. Things that we no longer need or use, but we just can’t seem to let them go.
We recently walked around campus, asking students what they hold onto. What’s something that they treasure that anyone else would think of as trash?
Maya Katz, A25: My track and field sweatshirt from high school. It’s really gross and it has a bunch of stains and it’s really old and worn out.
Michael Dianetti, A22: I have a whisk that Haley and I stole from a party freshman year. I have it in my box of random miscellaneous things that I don’t use.
Haley Rosenfarb, A22: I actually have a ladle from that same night. I’m glad we both still have those.
Kiara Reagan, A22 (BFA): Artists, I think, are inherently hoarders. So there’s a million pieces of really terrible artwork under my bed.
Shayna Wagner, A23: I have this rock that I took from a mountain when I lived in Israel for a few years. And I usually just carry it around in my backpack.
Donavan Payne, A22: I hold onto cards that people give me. I have tests and quizzes that were graded back in ninth and eighth grade. Yeah, I don’t get rid of a lot. I don't. I actually hold onto a lot.
Julie Flaherty: What we hold onto says a lot about us. What we value. What we love. What we miss.
Miller: This is Tell Me More, the Tufts University podcast. I’m Anna Miller.
Flaherty: And I’m Julie Flaherty.
Miller: This episode is all about what we keep …
Flaherty: … and what we throw away. Among other experts, we’ll hear from a home organizer helping people pare down, a recycling expert who tells us that we’re running out places to put the things we do throw away, and a veterinarian who is holding onto goat DNA to help us in the future.
Miller: First off, we’re going to start with a story about what happens when you’ve inherited something and you’re not sure what to do with it.
Flaherty: Peter Levine is the associate dean for academic affairs at Tisch College. He grew up in a modest single-family home in Syracuse, New York. Its most distinguishing characteristic was that it was filled to the brim with history books.
Peter Levine: The basement was a very tight library-stack arrangement, the whole basement, kind of narrow pathways between bookshelves, often with two layers of books on each shelf. And then upstairs in the house all the way up to the attic there were bookcases on almost every available wall, even a couple in the kitchen.
Flaherty: The books were thanks to his father, a history professor. And the collection was his passion.
Levine: I mean one example of how he bought was that when it was clear that he only had about a week left to live because he had gone off dialysis, he still bought two books.
Flaherty: When his father passed away in 2008, Levine did a count. There were 26,000 books, and because his father hadn’t left any instructions, he had no plan for what to do with them. Should he keep them in his father’s memory? Should he let them go?
Levine: One thing I often thought when I was a young adult was that I wanted to keep the books, put them in a barn or something like that, some kind of other structure outside of our house, because I like them, actually, and I know about them because I talked so many times with my dad about the books. And I would have liked them in a space around me. So it took a kind of maturation process for me to realize that it was crazy for me to take all the books—I mean, apart from anything else, what would my kids do after I died with 26,000 books?
Flaherty: He figured that a university library would want the collection, but many large universities already had some of the books, so there would have been a lot of duplicates to deal with. Eventually, he took out an ad in the New York Review of Books, saying that this collection was available.
Levine: It wasn’t that easy to find a home and the home is the national library of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo, which is a unique situation because that national library was deliberately bombed to bits by the Serbs in the 1990s during the war. And so they lost their collection. So they needed books in a way that’s unusual.
Flaherty: It took a team of movers about a week to pack up all the books and fit them into a bunch of trucks. They filled two shipping containers. But they didn’t all go to Sarajevo. One part of the collection went to Virginia to replace some missing books from President James Madison’s library.
Levine: So President James Madison’s collection was lost because his son was a spendthrift gambler, and he went into bad debt. And so the collection was sold, and they were all dispersed.
Flaherty: So somewhat ironically, Levine was replacing books that someone else had to let go.
And then Levine kept about 2,000 books for himself, mostly the oldest and most fragile ones that wouldn’t survive the journey to Sarajevo. He displays them in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in his office at Tufts.
Levine: They’re in bad shape but many of the bindings have some gold leaf on them and so when the sun sets at Tufts and the sun streams in the window and they all gleam and glitter with gold, that gives me joy. Or when I pull down some book and I basically think about why Dad would have bought it or that he might have been very pleased with himself for having found it, and I get joy out of that too.
Flaherty: Although people have praised Levine for donating the books, he says he’s the one who is grateful to the library, for accepting his father’s collection and putting it to use.
Levine: If giving things away is good, taking things and giving them a good home might be a virtuous thing to do as well.
Flaherty: As director of digital collections and archives at Tufts, Dan Santamaria has worked with lots of people who are trying to find homes for their relatives’ collections. He says it’s worth talking to your loved ones about what you want to happen with those kinds of things after you’re gone.
Dan Santamaria: Because I’ve seen a lot of situations where children and grandchildren are just struggling to deal with all the stuff that's left behind without those conversations.
Flaherty: Part of his job is deciding what documents, ephemera and other bits of Tufts history make it into the university archives. How much of what gets handed to them do they keep?
Santamaria: It’s hard to come up with a specific percentage but it’s really, really low. It’s under 5% for sure.
Flaherty: Santamaria knows all about the hard choices of what to keep. He says one question you can ask is, how unique is something?
Santamaria: Is it something that can be found elsewhere? Was it mass produced? Where it’s a newspaper from the end of World War II, for example, and so there’s a lot of those around, it might be really meaningful for the person but when you get generations away, it’s going to be less and less meaningful. Does the material make sense on its own? If somebody finds this in 20 years, will they be able to understand what it is? Or if it’s a photograph, who the people are in it if it’s taken out of context?
Flaherty: I asked if he’s the one at home who makes the decisions about what gets tossed.
Santamaria: So my wife is also an archivist—
Flaherty: Do you actually have formal appraisal sessions where you sit down—
Santamaria: We do not. We do not. We need a break from professional appraisal theory. And so I would not say we’re a model of maintaining your personal documentation at home. The dynamic is I definitely tend to want to keep more stuff, especially stuff from when my kid was little.
I think if it makes people feel better, I think we still have some boxes in the basement from when we moved to Massachusetts from New Jersey, which was seven years ago, that probably need to be gone through at some point.
Flaherty: So even the professionals have trouble keeping up, at least with all the belonging we accumulate in our personal lives.
Karen Kramer: You know, there’s so much cheap stuff in the universe right now. It’s so easy to acquire, do a little retail therapy here and there, you know—the stuff comes in.
Flaherty: That’s Karen Kramer, class of 1970. She studied psychology at Tufts and became a psychotherapist. But after 20 years in private practice, she found a new calling.
Kramer: I saw an article in the Boston Globe about this totally new career called professional organizing. Who knew? I had always loved to organize things and declutter and clear space and I thought this would be another way to help people have more of what they wanted in their lives.
Flaherty: And by more, she means less. Now a professional organizer, Kramer thinks a lot about helping people with letting go.
Kramer: The average American home has 300,000 items in it and many of them are duplicates.
I have a deep belief that decluttered, cleared space reduces stress, fosters peace of mind. It allows you to be more effective and efficient and even creative. It saves you money. You can find things. It’s good for your health. Cleared space is easier to clean and the air quality is better.
Excess belongings can really make you feel weighed down and overwhelmed and unsettled. It could even keep you attached to the past. And there’s something about letting it go that makes room for the new.
Flaherty: Why do we have so much trouble getting rid of stuff? Well, we might feel guilty, like when letting go of a gift someone gave us.
Kramer: Take in the love that was sent your way. Take in the love, maybe take a picture if you need to, and then let it go.
Flaherty: Kramer says we also worry that we’re getting rid of something valuable or that we might need one day.
Kramer: I mean, if you’re concerned that something’s very value, of course, you can look it up eBay or the like or you can have it appraised, but usually it’s a whole lot of hassle for a questionable return. One client told me, we worked together, and she let go of around 400 things. And when I checked in with her a few years later, she told me she only needed one of them and it cost her $15. And the value of her clear, orderly space was so priceless.
The sentimental stuff is really the hardest. And the irony is that so much of it is collected, but nothing is done with it. It’s stuffed away somewhere, it’s gathering dust, and it’s not shared or enjoyed.
Organizer Peter Walsh, who used to be on Oprah, he says, when everything is valuable, nothing is valuable. In so many ways, less is more.
Share them, put them out, look at them. Another thing Peter Walsh says, too, that’s good, he says, you don’t have to hold onto everything to honor a loved one’s memory. This vase is not your mother. You’re not throwing her away.
Flaherty: Kramer has some tips for letting go. If you are feeling some separation anxiety about those cookbooks you never use, put them in a box for year. If you don’t miss them, just pass them on.
Kramer: Another one that I love is, would you keep this if you were moving? I tell the story that my brother, who also went into Tufts, he was a senior when I was a freshman, moved a few years ago and he found the letting go of stuff so freeing that he asked me to call him every three or four years and tell him he was moving so he could let go of more stuff again.
Anna Miller: Getting rid of stuff can feel good. But just because it’s out of your life doesn’t mean that it’s really gone.
Kaitlyn Reed: When it comes to thinking about your trash, you just have to realize that whatever it is, it doesn’t just disappear. Whatever you are recycling, whatever you are throwing away, whatever you are using, even though it’s leaving your hand, it’s leaving your house, it’s leaving your dorm room, it still has an impact wherever it goes.
Miller: That’s Kaitlyn Reed, the recycling and waste reduction coordinator at Tufts University. And she says that even though things are being placed in the recycling bins, a lot of those items don’t end up getting recycled.
For example, that plastic water bottle that you just finished? And chucked into the recycling bin at your house? It’s out of sight and out of mind, but where does it end up?
Reed: It’s usually thrown as trash. If you would like a statistic, I’d say there’s a 30% chance right now that that recycled water bottle will be turned into something new. The likelihood depends on how contaminated your recycling is. And that goes not only for your own bin, but also for everyone on your block.
Miller: Contamination happens all the time. Items might have food scraps left in them, or paper products might become wet, or there’s just too much garbage mixed among the recyclable items. All of it leads to everything being dumped as trash at a processing center.
So to boost your chances of your recyclables actually being recycled, Reed says that your items need to be three things:
Reed: Clean, empty, and dry.
Miller: And if it’s not, it’s likely to end up in one of two places: a waste-energy facility or a landfill.
Reed: And waste-energy is exactly what it sounds like. It’s taking your trash, and it’s incinerating it, catching it on fire, and turning it into energy.
Miller: Burning may sound like a great solution, but it also has major drawbacks.
Reed: There can be a high emission rate of carbon dioxide, which is a greenhouse gas.
Miller: So there’s option two: the landfill.
Reed: A landfill is a giant trash pit. And I think a lot of companies, they try and tell you that it’s not that bad, but in reality, when you put a bunch of different things together into a pit, they eventually start to decompose, or they start to break down if that item isn’t biodegradable. Those items start to leak toxic chemicals, and then they can actually leak into our groundwater.
Miller: In addition to our trash being dangerous, we’re also running into a different problem. Are we running out space just even where we live for the stuff we no longer want?
Reed: Yes, definitely. San Diego County in California already has to sell all of their trash out of the county. They have no space. Rhode Island, they have one landfill in their entire state, and it will be full by the year 2034.
Reed: Yes. Twelve years from now, Rhode Island, the entire state, will have a huge, huge waste problem if they don’t find a solution now. So yes, we are running out of space to put our waste.
Currently in the U.S., we ship the vast majority of our recycling overseas. And basically what happened in 2018 is China said, I don't want your trash anymore. Because what was happening was, they were buying our “recycling,” but it was so contaminated that they were having to throw it as trash. So basically, we’re shipping our contaminated recycling that we already can’t use over to China. And we're telling them, here you go, you can use this. And they were paying for it. The reality is that no one wants our trash, but if we have a clean recyclable material, it is still bought and sold, domestically and internationally.
Miller: You’re kind of saying is that if you really want to help boost your chances of this item being recycled, keep it clean, keep it dry.
Reed: Yes. And I think another number one rule is no wish cycling, right? Wish cycling is this idea that I’m going to throw it in the recycling bin because I’m—fingers crossed—I’m hoping, I’m wishing it’s recyclable. Right? But that can also lead to contamination.
Miller: The tricky thing is, what’s recyclable is not so black and white. It’s 100% dependent upon where you live. Something that’s recyclable in one town might be considered trash in the next.
Reed: I’ve lived in a handful of different states. And I’m originally from North Carolina, I’ve lived in Rhode Island, now I’m in Massachusetts, I was in New Hampshire during the pandemic, and every single time, I’m going in, relearning all of my recycling and waste rules. And I have to then become the expert on it. And I’m like, I know, but I just got here. So hold on, give me one minute, because everything that I thought was true is now wrong.
You know, people are always asking me, how do I make sure that my recycling gets recycled? But the question should really be, how do I think strategically so that I have less to recycle, so that I’m actually producing less waste? You know, you have to think about that both as you're buying and as you’re throwing out, right? If you’re throwing away your third plastic water bottle for the month, how can I think strategically about what I do next? And next time, is there something that I can do that means that I will have less waste?
Miller: Reed says it’s time for us to think more about the lifespan of each item. For example, that water bottle? You might have used it for five minutes, but it will take 450 years to break down. That water bottle will be here until the year 2472.
Reed: Plastic never goes away. Every single piece of plastic that we have ever produced still exists on the planet.
Miller: But it’s not just physical stuff that we keep. We’re also constantly creating and storing digital files, too. In the past, we saved it on floppy disks, thumb drives, and then eventually CDs. But now, most of our data, photos, and videos—they’re all backed up to the cloud.
But is there a limit to how much we can store there? Will the cloud ever run out of space?
Mark Hempstead: So yeah, running out of space is a funny question. In fact, as long as you’re willing to pay for it, I honestly don’t see any technical limitations for us running out of space for our digital data.
Miller: That’s Mark Hempstead. He’s a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Tufts.
Hempstead: Maybe if every human being decided to turn their life into a movie and record every single moment in high-definition video, we probably could only store about a million people or so. Maybe we would run out at that point.
Miller: So when something is stored to the cloud, I think people think it kind of goes out into the ether. But is there actually a physical place where our data is being sent?
Hempstead: When you store something in the cloud, it is being stored on computer servers out in data centers all over the world. And these data centers are huge collections of computers. Many of the big tech companies—Google and Microsoft and Facebook and others—they buy computers in trailer-truck containers at a time and assemble data centers like that.
These data centers are the size of huge football stadiums and contain millions of machines. The real thing that makes the cloud powerful is that there’s not just one copy of your data. Your data is replicated across multiple servers within that one data center to provide some form of redundancy. So if one server dies, your data is still there. If one whole data center all of a sudden disappears, many of these cloud providers have replicated across the globe.
Miller: Where is a good place to build a data center? Do we drive by them on the highway and don’t even realize it?
Hempstead: Most of the time you actually won’t drive by them on the highway. What a lot of tech companies decide when they’re manufacturing data centers is they look for cheap, inexpensive land that is nearby but not too near cities and other places where the data’s going to be consumed. One thing that data centers are really thinking about, a lot of these big tech companies are, is how can we be green? And how can we basically be carbon neutral, at least in terms of the energy they’re consuming? Currently 1% of global energy use is going to data centers. It’s projected to go up to 7 or 20%, depending on what estimates you read. And so that’s one reason about where to place your data center is you try to figure out where can you get nice, clean, green power? Whether it’s big solar farms, whether it’s hydropower, which was one of the early places where data centers were placed.
Miller: And data centers use a lot of power.
Hempstead: Lots and lots of power. We’re talking the power that would power a city worth of power. And they are scattered all over the country. All these big tech companies have data centers and all over the world. Facebook has data centers in Ireland and in Virginia—anywhere you can imagine.
Miller: Even though the cloud can be limitless, that infinite storage possibilities come at a price.
Hempstead: It’s expensive to run these data centers. And so if all of us have hundreds of gigabytes of data, that can be expensive to store at scale. And so then how are we going to be paying for that? Right now we’re paying, honestly, with our privacy and our ads. So yeah, technically there’s no limit. You can just make more of these data centers. But eventually the sort of power costs and the infrastructure costs will become pretty prohibitive if everyone starts collecting lots and lots of high-definition images, video, things like that.
Miller: So the fact that I have like 30,000 pictures of my dog is not necessarily bogging down the system?
Hempstead: No, 30,000 pictures of your dog is actually not that expensive. That’s a hundred dollar hard drive, right? It's nothing, nothing too significant.
There are some big issues, some technical issues that could limit your ability to store the stuff forever. No matter how good the data centers are replicating, there are issues of bit rot—read and write errors. And so you can have an image over time that is not the same.
Miller: But also, there’s always the threat that technology will eventually move on, and you might not be able to read your data anymore. Take, for example, your VHS tape. It’s getting harder and harder to track down a tape player these days. And that’s true for computer software as well.
Hempstead: The bits that store our digital information are just agreements that we have with the programmers that wrote the software. And so if that meaning is lost because we no longer have the software that was used to generate those images, it can be very difficult to recreate.
Miller: Old mix tapes and family photos on CDs—it’s easy to forget about them until the technology is obsolete. Which brings us to our next story, about someone who found a precious piece of history before it was too late. It was in the form of a 16mm film in a musty cardboard box.
Flaherty: It was about a dozen years ago, Glenn Kurtz, class of 1984, got to thinking about an old family movie his grandfather had made. He wondered if his family had bothered to keep it. So he went rooting around in his parents’ closet.
Kurtz: And I didn't even know if they still existed, but I found it. In an old aluminum can and it smelled terribly of vinegar. And it turned out to be this 14-minute-long film of my grandparents’ trip to Europe in 1938.
The majority of the film is just very typical tourist footage. You know they’re standing in front of monuments. They’re walking. They’re waving at the camera and pointing out sights. And then in the middle of it there’s these three minutes that are very, very clearly different. Instead of my grandparents being the focus of the camera's attention suddenly there’s hundreds of people. There are all these kids jumping and waving and trying to get their faces in the lens.
Flaherty: Kurtz didn’t know where those three minutes were filmed. But after nearly a year of research, he figured out that his grandparents had taken a side trip to his grandfather’s hometown of Nasielsk, Poland. And he realized that he was looking at a thriving Jewish community just before the Holocaust.
Kurtz: It was very soon after learning the name of the town that I understood that of the 3,000 or so Jews who lived in the town when my grandparents visited, fewer than 100 would survive the war. At that moment I guess I realized that this was truly a profound memorial to this community. And I felt a great sense of responsibility to the individuals who appear in the film.
Flaherty: Kurtz spent years searching for clues about the lost town and its people. What he learned he put into a book, Three Minutes in Poland, which became the basis for a documentary released this year. In it, Kurtz shares the memories of townspeople he tracked down around the world. They talked about the horrors of the Holocaust and the often-miraculous stories of survival. But they also talked about what life was like before the war. Simple things, like the story one man told him about the year he and all the kids in town started collecting and trading buttons, sort of like Pokémon cards.
Kurtz: And he told this just charming story about, he sat at shul, right, at temple, on Shabbat, on Saturday morning, and he’s with his friend Leslie and they’re looking around and it’s wintertime so all these coats are hung up on the wall. And he looks and sees, “Oh my God, buttons! It’s a gold mine of buttons!” And so while everyone else is praying the two boys cut all of the buttons off of everybody’s coat and think we’re going to be the richest kids in town. And at the end of the service, the men put their coats back on, patting themselves—wait, something’s wrong.
And so needless to say you know he was grounded for life as a result of that little prank. So I mean it was memories like these, just, in a sense, perfectly ordinary childhood memories. But the ordinariness of it is exactly what you want in a way. You want to remember, because of what happened in this town, what normal life was like and what ordinary kids did under ordinary circumstances because that’s precisely what's gone. We know the horror—or at least we think we know the horror—and that attracts all of our attention. But because that’s so compelling, all of this other ordinary stuff gets lost. And so in a sense that becomes the precious recovery now. That, you know, they played with buttons.
Flaherty: This little piece of film in itself didn’t have any monetary value. It’s not something that someone would say, oh, someday this will be worth a lot of money or something. But it turned out to be so meaningful to so many people. Do you ever think about how easily this film just could have been tossed out at some point?
Kurtz: Oh, absolutely, yeah. And that’s what happens. We have all of these objects. If you look around your room now, it’s stuffed with things. And in 100 years, how many of those things will still exist? A couple, one or two. And it’s the same way with like documents and with the primary sources of history. There’s this terrible, terrible attrition that takes place with time and eventually there’s just a few things left and that’s what we construct history from.
I mean for me, really, this was the most extraordinary thing about the experience that I had meeting the survivors and talking with them. And when we talked about how fragile the film is and how over time it deteriorated and was almost unrecoverable when I found it. But how much more fragile in a sense are these memories. And it’s just the incredible tenuousness of these very ordinary things that it was really such a privilege to be able to recover and preserve.
Flaherty: Sometimes, like with Kurtz's home movie, you can’t predict what things people will be glad you kept. Other times, keeping something that you know others will benefit from takes a special effort. That’s what one group had to do to help preserve biodiversity for the future.
Miller: When we think of endangered animals, we often think about pandas and tigers. But you wouldn’t necessarily think about these guys.
[sounds of goats, cows, and sheep]
But in fact, there are a lot of old livestock breeds—referred to as heritage breeds—that are disappearing.
David Matsas: Correct. So these are breeds that were favored by our ancestors, maybe back in the 1700-1800s and prior, that at the time were very good at producing food, milk, fiber, and meat. They did well on sparse pasture, they were good mothers, those sorts of traits. And then as agriculture improved, these breeds became much less valuable because the current agricultural breeds we have were bred to produce so much milk and so much meat that literally people kind of forgot about them.
Miller: That’s David Matsas, an assistant professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts and the interim chair of the Department of Environmental and Population Health. He’s an expert in theriogenology, or animal reproduction. He and his colleagues wanted to ensure that these heritage breeds weren’t forgotten and left behind. Breeds like the Ancient White Park cattle and Dorset Horn sheep.
Matsas: The Hog Island sheep, Gulf Coast sheep are one of our first breeds, they’re famous for being resistant to parasites. One of my favorite goat breeds was a breed called the Arapawa.
Miller: They’re stocky animals, with big horns, and known for being hardy. And it’s believed the Pilgrims might have brought them with them on the Mayflower. But you’ve likely never seen an Arapawa goat before. There are estimated to be fewer than a thousand left today. But that doesn’t mean that will always be the case. Matsas and his colleagues took on a 20-year project with the SVF Foundation in Newport, Rhode Island, and scoured the country to find the rarest livestock breeds. They collected genetic material—eggs, sperm, and blood—just in case we ever want to bring these animals back in the future.
Matsas: And we didn't care about whether they were the best looking or the biggest or the smallest. We just tried to get as much as we could.
Miller: They then cryopreserved the material, storing it in a deep freeze.
Matsas: Put them in liquid nitrogen storage, which should be good for literally forever, as long as they stay frozen. Over the years, about 20 years total, we probably got close to between 35 to 40 different breeds of sheep, goats, and cattle in the bank.
Miller: But why go through all this effort? Why not just let the genetics peter out?
Matsas: The reason why we keep these old heritage breeds is because of the genetic diversity. Some people will care about the breed itself and how it looks, but it’s really what genetics and what traits might be there that we can capture that probably have been lost in some of our more modern, selected breeds with a very narrow gene pool.
Miller: Having a narrow gene pool is risky for all sorts of reasons, but namely, you have all of your eggs in one basket. If something goes wrong, everything could fall apart.
Matsas: When we explain why we started this project, we often use the example of the infamous potato famine back in Ireland where many people starved because the potatoes were infested by a fungus. The potato was all of the same exact strain, and they had no resistance to it, and it just wiped out the crop. And if we look at, for example—and I don't want pick on the Holsteins, but I will—most of our modern population of dairy cows is 90-plus percent Holstein. And they all were bred from—are relatives of a very narrow pool of sires. So they are all very closely related.
And if the similar thing was to happen and they can’t adapt to our changing climate or emerging new pathogens, we could potentially lose tremendous populations of them.
Miller: And this is where the heritage breeds come in. They might be hardier and more resilient to certain stressors in the future.
Matsas: So it’s almost like a safety net to have that biodiversity. Maybe we’ll never need it, but having it there is quite valuable.
Miller: It might turn out that some of these heritage breeds can survive better on a warming planet. Or maybe they are resistant to a virus that wipes out animals that are essential to today’s food supply. The thing is, we just don’t know that the future holds, so we have to keep a little bit of the past to maybe help us in the future.
Tell Me More is produced by Anna Miller and Julie Flaherty. Our executive producers are Dave Nuscher, Ronee Saroff, and Katie Strollo. Web production and editing support by Taylor McNeil and Sara Norberg. Our music is by DeWolf Music and Blue Dot Sessions. Special thanks to the students who were featured at the top of the episode: Maya Katz, Michael Dianetti, Haley Rosenfarb, Kiara Reagan, Shayna Wagner, and Donavan Payne. Please subscribe, and rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts. Or shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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