DOWN TO EARTH: Joel Salatin is a self-described "Christian Libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic farmer," and he's on the front lines of a grassroots movement that's growing like okra in August. As owner of the 500-acre Polyface Farms in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, Salatin is an iconoclast who's helping lead local, sustainable farming from the fringes to front-and-center of American agriculture. Agence France-Presse crosses the pond this week to profile Salatin, whom it calls "the face of healthy eating and agriculture." He only grows food for about 400 families, 50 restaurants and a dozen shops located near his farm, but he's written several attention-grabbing books, such as 2007's Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal, and was also featured this summer in two indie local-food films, Food Inc. and Fresh. While Salatin has seen his ideology gain widespread acceptance recently — the number of small U.S. farmers markets grew 13 percent this year from 2008, according to AFP, and swelled by nearly 4,000 since 1994 — he still has an individualist streak. His products aren't labeled organic, something he calls unnecessary, deceptive and bogged down with bureaucracy. "We are beyond organic," he tells AFP. "Organic doesn't mean what people think it means." (Sources: Agence France-Presse,

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE: The island of Madagascar broke off from Africa 160 million years ago and has been evolving eccentrically ever since, becoming a sort of real-life Where the Wild Things Are (which hits movie theaters this weekend, by the way). Flying foxes, supersized moths, giant jumping rats and hundreds of species of lemurs — found nowhere else on Earth — populate this bizarro-world Noah's Ark as it gradually drifts out into the Indian Ocean. But much of this weird wildlife is in jeopardy now, the Washington Post reports, thanks to coup leaders who took over the country in March. They've been recklessly logging forests, including hundreds of trees in a rosewood forest that's home to 11 endangered species of lemurs. "Once the crisis exploded, there was no more state of law in Madagascar," says one park director, who had to close his park for two months as gangs pillaged it. "Everyone saw the exploiters everywhere, even us. What could we do?" To make matters worse, Madagascar's meager conservation funds are now drying up, since few international donors want to reward the coup government for its actions. (Sources: Washington PostCNN)

HELLO, HYBRIDS: They may be dangerously quiet or make noises like a giant bumblebee, but gas-electric combo cars have hit the mainstream nonetheless. In the Energy Department's and EPA's new fuel-economy rankings for the 2010 model year, nine of the top 10 cars are hybrids — and unlike past years, those hybrids come from six different automakers and carry nine different nameplates. "There's now a hybrid for everyone," the federal agencies announced in releasing their report, which is published on "It's not either a Prius or an Insight anymore." The Toyota Prius is of course still the top eco-car, with its 51 mpg city and 48 mpg highway rating. The Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan, Nissan Altima, and Honda Civic and Insight also made the top 10, joined by the only nonhybrid, Daimler's Smart For Two, which gets 33 mpg city and 41 mpg highway. The Ford Escape hybrid took top honors for the most fuel-efficient SUV (34 mpg city/31 mpg highway), and Chevrolet's C15 Silverado Hybrid was the most efficient standard pickup truck. Usual suspects filled out the list's nether regions, with the Lamborghini Murcielago coming in dead last with its abyssmal 8 mpg city and 13 mpg highway rating. (Sources: Los Angeles Times, Detroit News)

EARTHQUAKE: Another powerful earthquake shook and rattled Indonesia on Friday, following an even stronger, 7.0-magnitude temblor that struck earlier this month and killed more than 1,000 people in western Sumatra. Friday's quake was originally reported as a magnitude 6.5, but the U.S. Geological Survey later downgraded that to 6.1. The epicenter was about 115 miles southwest of Jakarta, and while it sent panicked people streaming into the streets, there were no initial reports of damage. A wave of earthquakes has plagued nations throughout the Pacific Ring of Fire in recent weeks, and scientists in Singapore announced Thursday that even more devastating quakes will likely strike Sumatra over the next 30 years. (Sources: CBS News, CNN, Xinhua)

TROUBLED WATERS: The EPA announced Thursday that it will revamp the way it enforces the Clean Water Act — essentially promising to finally start enforcing it. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson spent much of the day explaining to House lawmakers what she'll do differently to correct years of lax oversight of water pollution, which many critics argue has helped cities, companies, farms and factories pollute water sources across the country, the NY Times reports. "The time is long overdue for EPA to re-examine its approach to Clean Water Act enforcement," Jackson said at Thursday's hearing before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, an event spurred largely by a September Times article reporting that various polluters had violated the Clean Water Act some 500,000 times in the past five years, yet fewer than 3 percent of them had ever faced fines or other forms of punishment. While the agency hasn't yet honed in on who it'll target under its tougher new stance, it's expected to initially focus on mining companies, large livestock farms, wastewater treatment plants and construction companies whose runoff often contaminates streams, rivers and lakes. (Source: New York Times)

A BONE TO PICK: Archaeologists have found the 200,000-year-old leftovers from ancient humans' meals, and an analysis of cut marks on the animal bones reveal that Paleolithic people ate very differently than we do today. The researchers were digging around in Israel's Qesem Cave, an early human hideout discovered east of Tel Aviv nine years ago during highway construction, when they found the remnants of hunted meals from 200,000 to 400,000 years ago. Scratches and dents in the animal bones show that, rather than letting a specialized butcher or cook prepare the meat for everyone to eat, these cavemen's feasts were more like a free-for-all. "We believe this reflects a different way of butchering and sharing. More than one person was doing the job, and it fits our expectations of a less formal structure of cooperation," one researcher says. "The major point here is that around 200,000 years ago or before, there was a change in behavior. What does it mean? Time and further excavations may tell." The findings have already put to rest at least one controversy — they seem to prove that Paleolithic people were hunters, damaging earlier theories that they were still scavenging and gathering at the time. (Source: ScienceDaily)

MAKING MEMORIES: With a tweak of a few neurons, scientists have successfully given flies fake memories, making the unwitting insects fearful of a bad experience that never actually happened. In a new study published in the Oct. 16 issue of the journal Cell, the Oxford researchers explain how they manipulated a dozen individual neurons in the flies' brains to make them associate a particular odor with something scary, like an electric shock. "Flies have the ability to learn, but the circuits that instruct memory formation were unknown," one of the study's authors says. "We were able to pin the essential component down to 12 cells. It's really remarkable resolution." (Source: e! Science News)

Russell McLendon

Want to receive the day's eco-news in your inbox? Click here to sign up for the Daily Briefing newsletter.

Photo (Prius assembly in Japan): ZUMA Press

Photo (ring-tailed lemurs): ZUMA Press

Photo (farm runoff): EPA

Photo (housefly):

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Weekend Briefing 10/16/2009
Hybrids hit it big, Madagascar in dire straits, scientists give flies fake memories, and more.